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Phil Kiko has been the top staffer at the powerful House Judiciary Committee since 2001. A soft-spoken civil servant, Kiko provides the tempered edge that his boss, the diligent, tough-minded, and sometimes abrasive committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), often lacks. Sensenbrenner was going to step down in January, whether the Democrats won or not. Under Republican caucus rules, he’s limited to three terms as chair. Kiko’s future is unclear; he’s been working on the Hill and in various administration jobs for nearly 30 years but could ultimately end up downtown as a lobbyist. Last week he sat down with Legal Times T.R. Goldman to discuss changes on the Hill, committee accomplishments, and a staffer’s life.
LT: What’s changed since you first came to the Hill in 1979? KIKO: I think there’s more [of] an emphasis on being back in the [home] district than in Washington. I think [the three-day workweek in Washington] concentrates the time in which we have to get business done. I don’t think it necessarily means less business gets done. There’s probably a more efficient use of time. I came to the Hill during Watergate, and there was a very partisan atmosphere in Washington. But I think there’s an even harder edge on Capitol Hill right now.
LT: Meaning? KIKO: Maybe less collegiality. I don’t necessarily associate collegiality with compromising. I think you can have very firmly held positions, conservative or liberal, and you can still be collegial, and you can still get along with people when you’re not voting and off the floor.
LT: Your staff is halving; the Democrats’ staff is doubling. What do you do to deal with that? KIKO: You have to deal with trying to find the staff places to go. There are incoming members, the administration, and trade associations, law firms.
LT: How do you decide which employees will get the ax? KIKO: That’s up to the next ranking member to decide.
LT: Sensenbrenner was chairman for six years; that’s a lot of legislation. KIKO: I would say that the highlights are the emphasis the chairman had on oversight, the Justice Department, the State Department and homeland security, on terrorism issues, on immigration issues, but also the legislative agenda. The extension of the Patriot Act, legal reform, partial-birth abortion legislation. We had a lot of minor bills that were important in intellectual property. Another big bill we moved is DOJ reauthorization. They hadn’t reauthorized it in 20 years, and we reauthorized it twice.
LT: How often does a staffer have to do things that, in your conscience, you don’t agree with? KIKO: It’s the member who has the election certificate. You have to approach your member, your committee, like a lawyer approaches a client. Obviously, you want to work for someone with whom you don’t have those conflicts all the time. Sometimes I’ll get issues, and there’s no right answer that screams out. On intellectual property issues, for example, you have various sides battling in court all the time.
LT: There’s no ideological taint to one side or the other? KIKO: I don’t think so.
LT: You can’t line up someone according to their party and see how they are going to vote? KIKO: Not on intellectual property or antitrust.
LT: Do people spend less time up here [on the Hill] before they think about going downtown? KIKO: I don’t think there’s a lot of staff that make a career out of Capitol Hill, like I did.
LT: Why? KIKO: The pressures of the job, the long hours, the intensity of the issues. There’s a lot of job insecurity up here as well.
LT: What are the attractions of going downtown — besides the money? KIKO: It’s not all about the money. I think it’s about quality of life. Hopefully, the hours will be better. I put in a lot of 18-to-20-hour days when we had the Patriot Act and were moving a lot of bills at the same time. It was sort of telling that at the end of September, I actually was there for breakfast, and my wife introduced my son to me.
Working Lunch runs every other week in Legal Times .

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