This week (as part of my official duties) I had the opportunity to sit in on a meeting for the Senate Committee on Human Rights. It was an incredibly rich experience, and an opportunity that I would encourage you to take advantage should it cross your plate.
It was interesting for a couple of reasons, the first is that I tagged into some of the preparatory work and it was an opportunity to see my input become throughput (something that is important, but often lost in large organizations).
Secondly, as someone who is interested in the dynamic between public service mandarins and their political masters getting to see the dynamic play out in person (literally right in front of you) is fairly awe inspiring.
Finally, I was away from my home department for 13 months on an assignment working in a completely different field, so the chance to sit in on the committee as government witnesses gave depositions was probably one of the best (corporate) learning opportunities I’ve been afforded in a very long time. The back and forth between public servants and senators in the question and answer provided a richer experience then an ad hoc reading the transcripts ever would.
In short, I think you should keep your eyes out for opportunities like these and seize them whenever possible, its not everyday you can take a step back and (to mix metaphors) realize the forest for the trees.
I will probably get grief from some of my fellow career feds and former Hill colleagues for this but I believe a basic non-negotiable qualification for entry into the Senior Exicutive Service should include one year working as a staff member for a Congressional committee or leadership office with a similar requirment that Congressional Committee staff directors must have at least one year working in an executive branch agency. It would also help to provide more junior staff opportunities for 3-6 month details between executive and legislative branches.
I would also recommend sitting in on a state-level committee meeting. I interned with a lobbying group during the 2012 Virginia General Assembly, and I spent a lot of time sitting in on committee meetings. It was really interesting to hear the testimonies of citizens, field experts, and lobbyists. While sometimes it was clear that the legislators already had their minds set on their vote, other times they seemed to really see these exchanges with the public as a learning experience and let them influence their decisions.