By: Spring Gaines
2022 Knauss Legislative Fellow
House of Representatives-Congresswoman Nicole Malliotakis
Recently, I had the unique opportunity to take a winding tour of one of the most symbolic sites in Washington, D.C.—The Capitol Dome. At this point in my Knauss fellowship, I had a familiarity with the Capitol that I would not have anticipated when I started at the beginning of the year. I walked the empty halls as COVID-19 restrictions were still in place, and I witnessed the return of families and school groups who began filling these historic rooms under strict staged openings, based on our growing knowledge of living alongside this virus. As I looked on from the ground floor, the presence of the statutes representing the fifty states and the stories of our founding fathers and the first justices felt more familiar. It is a privilege I do not take for granted.
While climbing the almost 300 steps leading up to an eye-level view of Brumidi and Cox’s work with the Rotunda frieze, the Apotheosis of George Washington and beyond, I was reminded of something I told my best friend when she asked what it is like as a Gulf Coast girl walking around this city, “It’s not the distance; it’s the incline.”
I had already traveled some distance in my career before coming into this amazing Hill experience. Obtaining my Juris Doctor (J.D.) and Masters of Laws (LL.M.) in Environmental Law later in life gave me the perspective that there is more than one way to use a graduate education. We J.D.s are seen as the unicorns of this fellowship program. Part of that is that throughout those three years of law school, students are set on a path toward litigating with a firm and advocating for a person or corporation in a courtroom. That path was never and still is not for me.
My view of advocacy comes from creating policy and making grassroots change within communities. That grew into wanting to effect change on the federal level through bills and resolutions. I found that my legal training gave me an edge on the incline presented to me when I entered my office as an acting legislative assistant. My supervisor said that with my focus areas of marine, environmental, animal and agricultural policy, I may be the smartest person in the room. However, when it comes to Congress and how things work on the Hill, “You know nothing.” He continues to be completely right. Every day brings a realization about how much I do not yet know and still need to figure out. Of course, this is also the same man who took my legal background to heart and asked me to draft a bill within my first week of the fellowship (Thanks, Mike!).
As the November winds whistled through the open door, I took those final steps out to the top of the cupola of the Capitol. In looking out over our nation’s capital, I reflected on just how far I have come within my fellowship year. I drafted and introduced the first offshore wind revenue-sharing legislation for the Northeastern Atlantic to be presented in the House of Representatives. I wrote legislative memos for Congressional members, staffed my boss at committee mark-ups, and led letters of support for marine sanctuaries and appropriations asks for anti‐poaching and wildlife trafficking programs. Taking in the view over 200 feet up in the air, I would not swap places with anyone.
I continue to make my way up this incline, but with the confidence I gained in my knowledge base and abilities as a changemaker, I am no longer moving at a slow, steady pace. I am running and ready to take those next steps in my career pathway.