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Climate Changers: White House Aide Phil Schiliro

Phil Schiliro
That guy in the background of so many White House photos? It's Phil Schiliro. Who's that?
Obama's man on the Hill rounds up votes through good humor and, when necessary, staking out Senate elevators

Part of a series profiling key players in environmental politics. Read more>>

Who he is: Assistant to the President for Legislative Affairs

What does that title mean? When senators or representatives want to relay a message to the president, they call Phil. When the president wants to relay a message to Congress, he calls Phil. Essentially, Schiliro's a go-between, but a really, really important one.

Green cred: Schiliro attended Hofstra University and Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon. As a congressional and executive branch staffer for his entire working life, he has handled many different issues, green or otherwise. He spent more than two decades working for Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat with a strong environmental record. Because his job is to push his boss' agenda, not his own, Schiliro is rarely able to express his personal opinions publicly. Still, looking closely, we can find some environmental rumblings. In 1974, while he was a senior in high school on Long Island, Schiliro rallied students from his environmental studies class to stop a local company from polluting a stream behind his parents' house. Two decades later, when he ran unsuccessfully for a congressional seat in Long Island, he drew attention to links between breast cancer and pollution. In the coming months, he will help Obama usher a climate change bill through Congress.

How he gets things done: Schiliro's role can range from good-humored encouragement to persistent lobbying, depending on the occasion and whom he's working with. When Waxman, his longtime boss, was set to chair a hearing on an earlier version of the climate bill, Schiliro emailed him with the message: "Words for the day: patience and good humor." On another occasion, when Obama was searching for a Republican to support the health care reform bill, Schiliro staked out an elevator in the Capitol Building at midnight, waiting to buttonhole Republican Olympia Snowe as she returned from a late-night Senate vote. Schiliro usually finds a way to get what his bosses need out of people -- although the climate bill could be one of his toughest challenges yet.

What's it like to grab a sandwich with him? Phil makes you feel like the only person in his universe for that 45 minutes. While many high-level government staffers enjoy talking about themselves -- their importance, their knowledge, their annoyances -- Phil turns the tables and asks about you. Soon you're 20 minutes into a conversation about your own deepest hopes and dreams. How'd he do that? You suddenly remember all the questions you wanted to ask him. Then he makes a joke, deflects the attention away from himself, and launches you into another 20 minutes about your hopes and dreams. (Full disclosure: the writer did indeed share a sandwich with Schiliro while reporting for a different publication.)

He'll often use the same approach with lawmakers. Once he knows what they hope to achieve, he finds ways to accomplish those goals while also advancing the administration's agenda.

Why he's effective: People in Washington call him quiet and even-keeled, but also tough and persuasive, with a tendency toward self-deprecating wit. "A born diplomat," says Waxman. On Capitol Hill, he is seen as the good-cop counterpart to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel's bad cop. Schiliro often serves as the voice of the White House at closed-door meetings on Capitol Hill, explaining the president's intentions, gathering supporters, and answering questions.

Where to find him: Schiliro is the unidentified aide in the background of most photos taken of important people in Washington. OK, maybe not most photos, but a helluva lot of them. Just this May, as Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan was ushered around Capitol Hill, for example, Schiliro was there

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Josephine Hearn spent seven years inside the Beltway as a reporter for The Hill and later Politico. She is now a freelance journalist based in New York. In her free time, she enjoys impressing friends with her extensive knowledge of 1980’s sitcom t... READ MORE >