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Air Force legislative liaisons: politics without politics

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- When United States senators needed fact-based information on Air Force programs, they did not call any of the myriad of defense contractor lobbyists working in Washington DC, rather they called one of Vandenberg's own .

Col. Lavanson Coffey, 30th Launch Group commander, was an Air Force legislative liaison officer from 2001 to 2004. He worked as part of an elite group of Air Force active-duty officers, hand-picked to represent the Air Force Secretary and Chief of Staff before legislators in the halls of Congress and on Capitol Hill.

This unique duty offers Air Force active duty, civilian and Reserve officers the opportunity to work either in the office of a particular congressman, for the House of Representatives, Senate or within one of the specific directorates specializing in Air Force programs, weapons systems or inquiries. Colonel Coffey worked in the Senate liaison office, where he was responsible for ensuring open lines of communication between all 100 senators, their offices, associated committees and the U.S. Air Force.

"A big part of my job was to develop relationships with senators and their staff that ensured two-way access, so that the Secretary of the Air Force and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force could get into a senator's office and senators could get into the Pentagon whenever that needed to happen," Colonel Coffey said.

Colonel Coffey's legislative liaison position had an extremely wide scope. As he describes, senators and their staff members expected a single phone call to the Senate liaison office to generate an answer for any Air Force related question. Questions ranged from personnel, to weapons systems, to constituent inquiries and more. While he was the face to the senators, he often depended on subject matter experts in other directorates and within the Pentagon to answer specific questions. As described by Anthony Reardon, the Director of Staff of the legislative liaison program, a lot goes into choosing an individual to work in the directorate.

"Each position has a unique personality associated with it," Mr. Reardon said. "Legislative liaison positions require very engaging personalities; those who work there have to be able to build relationships quickly, be vocal about what they do, and have a lot of situational awareness. We also look for people who have established relationships. For example, if someone became a liaison from the acquisition branch, I would try to put them in a contracting position or a weapons position; this would best capitalize on the connections they have fostered within their career field."

Brig. Gen. Darryl Roberson, who currently serves as the Deputy Director of the legislative liaison program and was also a member of the first class of legislative fellows in 1996, was able to effectively use his experience as a pilot, both when he worked in the office of former Sen. Ted Stevens and when he worked as a professional staffer on the Defense Subcommittee on Appropriations during his time on Capitol Hill. The goal of the program is to provide valuable experience and insight to the future senior leaders of the Air Force, however, General Roberson explained that an added benefit of participating in the program comes from the possibility of affecting change, such as when he was able to help the families living on the Kwajalein Atoll receive much-needed funding.

"An experience that was particularly rewarding for me was when I was able to help with a need on the Kwajalein Atoll," said General Roberson. "There are military families with children living on that island and they needed funding for schools and other necessities. I briefed this need in front of the committee (Defense Subcommittee on Appropriations) and they secured a plus up of $10 million for the Kwajalein Atoll. It was important money, not just helpful in getting the mission taken care of but also in taking care of people."

Despite their varied roles and experiences, General Roberson, Mr. Reardon and Colonel Coffey all agree that the role of a legislative liaison is one of political astuteness, not of political bias. As Colonel Coffey emphasized, there is no space within the job of a legislative liaison to choose sides between Democrats and Republicans; a liaison has to understand all of the issues from the Air Force perspective. When it comes to Air Force issues, liaisons deal exclusively with facts.

"We spent a lot of time educating senators and their staffs on Air Force weapons systems," Colonel Coffey said. "We had a division of experts who knew everything about their programmatic employment and effects. Weapons systems are pretty apolitical. They cost a certain amount of money and they do a certain job. It doesn't matter if you are a Democrat or a Republican when it comes to the cost or capability that a weapon system provides."

Colonel Coffey said that the experience of working with the United States Senate not only gave him great insight into senior-level decision making, but also offered him a personal perspective into some of the motivations behind creating legislation within the United States Congress.

"Every single member of Congress is trying to do the right thing," said Colonel Coffey. "Whether you agree with them or not, they are all influenced by a number of factors that drive them to do things other than what you or I might do. Every single member goes to work each day trying to do right by themselves, their families and their constituents."