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Two weeks ago voters sent a clear message that they were unhappy with the status quo on Capitol Hill. It’s a sentiment that’s shared among many who work within Congress. Two recent reports by the Congressional Research Service found that staffers in the Senate and the House are making less money, in real dollars, than they were four years ago. And many staffers worry that tight budgets and low morale could trigger brain drain into the private sector. Kojo examines Congress as a local workplace.
- Brad Fitch President and CEO, Congressional Management Foundation
- Rebecca Gale Editor/ Writer, Roll Call; author "Hill Navigator" blog, rollcall.com; Former Hill staffer
- Daniel Scandling Chief of Staff, Office of Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA)
- Christopher McCannell Washington Office Director, APCO Worldwide; Former Chief of Staff, Office of Rep. Michael E. McMahon (D-NY) and Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-NY)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Two weeks ago, voters across the country sent a clear message that they're unhappy with the status quo on Capitol Hill. It's a frustration shared by many of the staffers who call Congress their professional home. Today, hundreds of legislative assistants, press aids and chiefs of staff are making less money in real dollars than they made four years ago.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd Congressional offices are expected to do ever more with frozen budgets. Meanwhile, the House and Senate, and by extension, all those who work there, have been vilified in political debates. And yet, despite all that, many staffers dispute the idea that Congress is broken. This hour, we're exploring the unique culture of working on the Hill with Brad Fitch. He is President and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation. Brad joins us in studio. Thank you for joining us.
MR. BRAD FITCHThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso with us is Rebecca Gale, editor, writer with Roll Call and author of the Hill Navigator blog at rollcall.com. She is a former Hill staffer. Rebecca, thank you for joining us.
MS. REBECCA GALEThank you so much for having me.
NNAMDIYou too can join the conversation. Give us a call. 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. What do you think? Is Congress broken? If you think it is, how much of that can be pinned on its workplace culture in your view? 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. Shoot us a tweet @kojoshow or go to our website, kojoshow.org. Follow the conversation, ask a question or make a comment there. Rebecca, it's a paradox that has probably always existed in American politics.
NNAMDIEvery election season, a new crop of politicians punch their ticket to Washington by spending months on the stump, talking about how awful and out of touch Washington is. So, it feels like anger towards Washington is at or near historic highs. How has that sentiment impacted the work and culture of the Hill?
GALESo, I think Capitol Hill has always had a bit of an outsider culture, in the sense that people are always clamoring to get on Capitol Hill. They're running for Congress, you know, Congress is really the everyman's body. You don't have to have a certain qualification to run for Congress. All you've got to do is win and being a Capitol Hill staffer is a great opportunity. It's a great opportunity for a young person, for somebody who wants to go into public service. And it's a great opportunity for someone who's more seasoned, who really wants to be in public service.
GALEAnd do a job that's rewarding and exciting and can change nearly every day. So, because of that, people are still clamoring to work on Capitol Hill. Even as pay goes down, even as benefits like healthcare is cut. Or even, you know, there's a lot of changes where people make sort of jerk staffer benefits around and that can disheartening. But it's not changing. You know, one thing that's happening now is both Democrats and Republicans are collecting resumes who work for new members.
GALEAnd they are expecting thousands of resumes, and they got thousands the last cycle, and they got thousands before that. So, there's not any sort of less -- no interest has gone down, even though some of the benefits and culture have may be changing.
NNAMDISo, it doesn't really matter what the perception of Congress is, whether it's seen as being effective, whether it's seen as being dysfunctional or whether it's seen as completely broken. The applicants never, apparently, decrease.
GALEI think there may be some changes over the years, and I think Brad could probably speak a bit better to that.
GALEBut, in general, I think the appeal of public service, the appeal of working on Capitol Hill and the appeal of being a young person that can make a difference in their day to day job, that isn't going to change. And Capitol Hill is one of the best places. Plus, in a place like Washington D.C., Capitol Hill's a very respected career path. You have that on your resume, it opens a lot of doors for you. You can have a lot of connections, you'll meet a lot of people, a lot of like-minded people. So, that can set you up for a much longer career, even once you decide to leave Capitol Hill and decide to go someplace else.
NNAMDIBrad Fitch, last year, the Congressional Management Foundation surveyed 1400 staffers from the House and Senate, asking them about their jobs. You found that 80 percent reported overall satisfactions with their current jobs, but almost two thirds of Washington based staffers were planning to look for a new job. So, is the grass 80 percent full or is it two thirds empty?
FITCHWell, you're not gonna like my answer. It's a little of both. The challenge that people have in working on Capitol Hill is the balancing their work and life. The average work week for a Hill staffer is between 50 and 60 hours a week and it gets worse towards the end of session when things get very busy. And in that same survey, we asked, what were the reasons why they would leave service? And of course, the number one reason is pay, as you've eluded to.
FITCHThey're getting paid, you know, anywhere from 20 percent to, you know, 100 percent than they could make somewhere else. But the other one is balancing work and life. And that they want to find a -- align their priorities in their life. And talking to former staffers who move on, you know, that's often a big factor is they want to spend the right time with their family. But it's more than that. Because it's very frustrating for a Congressional staffer who is working day in, day out and maybe not accomplishing and getting that extra sort of public service feeling that Rebecca referred to because the Congress is somewhat dysfunctional these days.
NNAMDIRebecca, since 2011, Congress has arguably born the biggest brunt of spending cuts and tight budgets of any branch of government. Two recent Congressional research service reports indicate that real wages are declining for staffers. Most people don't see all the work that these staffers do, so how could those cuts impact the general public?
GALEWell, I strongly agree with what you're saying, that most people do not see the hard work that a lot of staffers do. And what's happening, and, you know, what Brad has eluded to as well, is people who are these seasoned staffers, who are moving up in their positions and aren't able to make salaries that are competitive, are looking elsewhere for opportunities. You know, it is one thing to be somebody just out of college making a low salary, who doesn't maybe have a family or a mortgage and is willing to sort of take a pay cut to do a job that they like.
GALEBut it's a very different scenario if somebody's in their 30s, in their 40s, they have a mortgage, they have a family, they have responsibilities. And they see that they can make much more money, and especially when pay is going down. The other thing is affects is the morale. You know, one of the things in a CRS reports is that the both nominal and real dollars for the minimum salaries of a lot of positions had gone down. Which meant more staffers were coming on to the Hill, making even less money than they been four years ago.
GALESo, a position that had had a low salary had now had one even lower. And even though it's great that Congress can fill these positions and they can find 1,000 applicants that want to do the job, it does mean that staffers are more likely to burn out or go to a different position, off the Hill, when they want to, or need to, make more money.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Care to add anything to that, Brad?
FITCHYeah, and for the survey that you referenced, that we did on Congressional staff, one of the things that just blew me away was when I started looking at the open ended comments, the open ended questions that we asked. And it was actually a funny story, the researcher who was doing this said you gotta see these. And I said, well, print them out for me, and he said, I can't. They're 43 pages long. They just gushed with their sense of public service, their patriotism, their concern about the institution. It was really wonderful and we included it in our report.
FITCHBut one quote, I think is very relevant, to Rebecca's point, and this was from a House Senior Legislative Assistant who said this. I am seriously concerned that the salary stagnation in House offices is leading to a lower quality work force. Cuts to the budget are leading to a less educated, less experienced, less knowledgeable, less expert, less intelligent work force that is responsible for advising the Congress. Most Americans don't realize that more than, and you mentioned it, more than any other institution, Congress has cut its own budget.
FITCHThey cut it by 20 percent over a three year period. That means that an average House office which has 16 or 17 staffers now has 14 or 15 staffers and in real terms, that means constituents get service that just isn't as high quality, not as responsive because they just don't have the manpower to do it.
NNAMDIWhat do, since you mentioned the person power, the manpower to do these things, exactly what do Congressional offices do? By its nature, by our nature, we in media, play up the differences between politicians, since tension seems to be more interesting than stories about people getting along. Meanwhile, most members of Congress have a vested interest in playing up their differences too. But a lot of what a Congressional staffer does is not political at all. Do we have an accurate view of how Congress works when it is indeed working? What do Congressional offices do?
GALEI think it's very hard to have an accurate view if you have not worked closely with Congress before. And a lot of positions on Capitol Hill are not political, as you said, and a lot of it's case work. It's dealing with constituents. A constituent that has an issue with a federal agency, a problem with a federal agency, trouble navigating an immigration claim, even a healthcare claim, veterans' benefits. Their Congressman's office can be very helpful to them. There are people designed just to navigate those agencies for their constituents.
GALEThere's also people who handle legislative issues. And I think that's where a lot of the partisanship that you were referring to may be. And sort of taking an extreme position, but a lot of legislative assistants, they're researchers. They have a very academic understanding of what's going on and they want to learn more about the issues and advise their bosses on the best way to vote on an issue. And that sort of research, that homework, that data driven analysis and understanding, that takes a lot of time.
GALEAnd you want bright people who care a lot, who have a passion for what they're studying every day. And to sort of retain that talent does take some money, because there's a high burnout in that field.
FITCHThis is gonna sound odd, but the news media doesn't cover the Congress. The news media covers the Congressional leadership and occasionally a Committee Chairman. But the other 434 members of the House and the other 99 members of Senators that aren't on "Meet the Press," just don't get the coverage and there's also been a decrease in local news media bureaus in Washington, D.C. So, the people outside the beltway don't get a clear picture of what their members are doing.
FITCHAnd frankly, in part, it's because it's boring. There's just no business model around covering people solving immigration problems or giving tours of the US Capitol. And the other problem, and I hate to blame, "House of Cards" hasn't helped. I love the show, it's great, I binged watched like everybody else, but when Kevin Spacey, you know, said, oh, we get 99 percent of it right. I know a lot of people in Congress were scratching their head saying, which 99 percent of that, you know, is the part with, you know, you throwing people off of subways?
FITCHI don't remember that. I'm doing a show -- Rebecca and I are going to be on a panel with some former members and the question I'm going to ask, the first question I'm going to ask the former members -- so Congressmen, you know, when you are going to assassinate a reporter that you have been sleeping with, was Metro your first choice of weapon or did you think Amtrak would maybe be another option?
NNAMDIFor some reason, that's the part of the series that everybody remembers best and the part that is least likely to occur. I'll tell you what occurs more likely. When I had an emergency out of the country and I realized my passport has expired, I called the Office of D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and said, forget everything bad I ever said about you. How quickly can you get me my passport? In less than 24 hours, because there's someone in her office whose job it is to make sure that happens.
GALEAnd that is so much of what Capitol Hill staff do. And these are the people who have been there a long time. They know how to navigate these agencies very quickly and very effectively. And that's the expertise we're talking about when we're saying there's an advantage to Congressional staff keeping these longer term staffers.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Do you work, or have you worked on Capitol Hill? How has the culture changed since you first started? You can call us at 800-433-8850. Here's Daniel in Washington, D.C. Daniel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DANIELYeah, hi Kojo. I find it interesting that this conversation should be happening right after the Diane Rehm section, segment on job satisfaction. I'm a former Hill staffer, left the Hill despite the fact that I liked it a lot, loved my boss, loved my work to go in the private sector to earn at least 100 percent more money than I was earning on the Hill and I was the second highest paid staffer in the office after the Chief-of-Staff. Absolutely hated being a gun for hire in the private sector and quit, and you know, going -- looking to get back, either to the Hill or the Executive Branch or some other form of public service.
DANIELJust because job satisfaction means so much and doing something where you're earning, you know, what by all normal American standards would be a very high salary, and you hate it, is just not worth it. And if you find the right position and you're of the right mentality and you're on the Hill, that kind of satisfaction is something that you just can't find anywhere else. And at least, I mean, I'm maybe an anomaly, but that's my take.
NNAMDIRebecca or first you, Brad.
FITCHActually, he's not an anomaly. We were able to this study that you referenced with the Society for Human Research Management, which is our great partners at SHRM and they have data that looks at the private sector throughout America. And we're able to do comparisons of workplace engagement, employment engagement. And congressional staffers are off the charts compared to average Americans. They're pretty much on a scale of first responders of the military in terms of how important their office culture is, how important their goals are, connecting their goals to a broader meaning.
FITCHIt's really a dedicated workforce of public servants. It's exactly what Americans would want from this particular group of public servants. And they often don't get the credit that they deserve. That's by design. Staffers are supposed to be not even heard or seen, invisible really. But it is, just like Daniel said, it is these people that really do want to make a difference and give something back to their country.
NNAMDIRebecca, you're a former staffer yourself and I'm pretty sure that you have a pretty high level job satisfaction with what you're now doing. You didn't go out to be a hired gun for a private firm. But how important is that job satisfaction aspect of it?
GALEI think that's very high. I think a lot of it is the sense that if you've had it once before and you, like Daniel said, are working in a job where you're enjoying what you were doing most days, not even all days, but most days are good ones for you. You want to keep that. And you sort of know what you're missing. And it's that engagement, it's that every day you go to work and there's something exciting.
GALEYou're working in the capitol dome. I mean, you're working in these marble office buildings with members of Congress who are basically stewards of history. And that you can see why that would be so enticing for somebody, particularly somebody who's right out of college and you can see why basically what Daniel said, echoing how he really miss Capitol Hill and wanted to get back there, even after having -- made more money.
GALEHundred percent. That thousands of people are lining up to get these jobs, particularly with new members, where you can start, you know, building their office from the ground up and that's particularly exciting.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation about choosing to work in Congress, Capitol Hill staffers. You can still join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850. You can go to our website, kojoshow.org and follow the conversation there. Ask a question or comment or shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're discussing Capitol Hill staffers, people who chose and still choose to work in Congress. Taking your calls at 800-433-8850. We're talking with Rebecca Gale, who's an editor and writer with Roll Call and author of the "Hill Navigator" blog at rollcall.com. She's a former Hill staffer. Brad Fitch is president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation.
NNAMDIJoining us now in studio is Christopher McCannell. He's a former chief of staff to two Democratic Congress members from New York. He also worked in the Senate. Today, he is the Washington office director for APCO Worldwide. Chris McCannell, thank you for joining us.
MR. CHRISTOPHER MCCANNELLThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAnd joining us by phone is Daniel Scandling. He is chief of staff for Congressman Frank Wolf, Republican of north Virginia who is retiring at the end of the 213th Congress. Dan has worked on the Hill in a variety of positions for 24 years. Dan, thank you very much for joining us.
MR. DANIEL SCANDLINGSure, happy to do it.
NNAMDIWe're very excited to have you on, Dan, because we've worked with you over the years to get your boss on this show to talk about issues that important -- that are important to listeners in this region. And we're excited to learn a little bit more about the work you do besides taking requests from, well, public radio producers. What do you do?
SCANDLINGA little bit of everything. I kind of tell everybody that my job is to make sure the trains run on time from everything to making sure the boss is where he needs to be, to making sure the staff does what it does and I handle the press. And then in even numbered years, I would leave and come off the payroll and go run my boss' campaign.
NNAMDIYou have worked on the Hill for some 24 years now, working for Virginia Republicans before the 1994 Republican wave. You've also seen a Democratic wave in 2006. Now, a Republican wave in 2010 and 2014. How have all of those ebbs and flows affected the way Congress and you work on a day to day basis?
SCANDLINGI think the biggest thing is it's gotten a lot more partisan here over the years. There's not as much willingness to compromise, and that's on both sides. I think a lot of people will always just say it's because the Tea Party or this. I mean, both sides of the aisle play to their base or have to play to their base. And a big part of this, because of redistricting. We've drawn these districts to be super, you know, Republican or super Democrat and you're more concerned about appeasing your base.
SCANDLINGAnd I understand that, but it also makes it harder to compromise and have people come to the middle, because if you're an ultra-conservative or a super liberal, you're not going to move to the middle because your base is going to, you know, say "What are you doing? You shouldn't be doing that."
NNAMDIChris McCannell, you've -- McCannell, you've also worked on the Hill for many years serving as a chief of staff for two Democratic members, but also serving in the Senate. Today, you work in the private sector. Why did you leave? And are you ever tempted to go back?
MCCANNELLWell, thanks, Kojo. I think, first of all, I think the reason why I'm in the private sector today is because in 2010 I was part of that last Democratic wave that lost. So I guess you can say I was outsourced by the U.S. taxpayers.
NNAMDIYou were ousted.
MCCANNELLYeah. But to the point that Brad and Rebecca made earlier to the interest of staffers who've been part of work on Capitol Hill, have served up there that it's always something that you always think that you want to continue into public service. And for myself, I don't know if that would be House or job again as chief of staff. I've done 10 years on Capitol Hill. But I think there's always an interest in myself and a lot of my friends to serve in public service. That could be the administration, that could be in the Senate or another capacity.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Do you work -- have you worked on Capitol Hill? How has the culture change since you first started? You can give us a call at 800-433-8850. Have you interacted with your congressional representative? You can also send us email to firstname.lastname@example.org. We had a caller named Sean (sp?) who couldn't stay on the line. But Sean wanted to ask, "What does Congress looked like when it was effective? Specifically, the culture among staffers during their time." I'll start with you Dan Scandling. Care to respond to that?
SCANDLINGSure. I think the staff -- on a staff level, always works together. I mean, they're trying to move the agenda of their offices. And you have two different levels of staffs. You've got personal office staff, which is where I am where you answer to a specific member. And then you have a committee staff, which could be considered professional staff. And they are the ones that are moving the legislation or drafting legislation.
SCANDLINGAgain, the staffs all work together. I -- in the Virginia delegation, the chiefs of staffs meet quarterly, both Republican and Democrat. The legislative directors meet regularly. We regularly have delegation parties, so the staffs all know each other. When it comes to all things Virginia, it doesn't matter whether your boss is a Republican or a Democrat, we're going to do what's right for Virginia.
NNAMDIChris, same question to you.
MCCANNELLI would agree with Dan. From my personal professional experience, I was chief of staff to Congressman Joe Crowley after 9/11. And at that point, you know, the Republicans were in control in the House and Joe Crowley is a member of the Democratic leadership as well as President Bush and we had to work bipartisan to rebuild New York after 9/11 to cross the aisles to accomplish what we needed for our constituency.
MCCANNELLAnd, you know, I think to Dan's point, if you look throughout the entire history of Congress and you look at the folks who are trying to get things done, there is a lot of work that's being done on the staff level, both in the House side, as well as the Senate and bicamerally between both bodies to try to come agreement and to foster the agreement that's behind the scenes and outside of the television cameras that maybe the members of Congress are facing every day.
NNAMDIHaving said that, Rebecca Gale and Brad Fitch, given the public perception of Congress on the one hand and the fact that staffers are still doing the work they always did and still often working together across the aisle. On the other hand, is it far for the Congress to perceive that Congress is broken?
GALEI think that's a great question. I don't think that all of Congress is broken. And I think there are pockets of Congress and pieces of Congress that are effective every day. And these sort of small victories are happening that aren't the ones that are grabbing the cable news headlines. There's transportation projects, there's a casework we mentioned earlier, there's highway funding.
GALEThere's -- as Chris said, there's delegations working together to make things happen for their state. But those don't necessarily have the same narrative that people pick up on and they rather perceive Congress as broken. In my time on Capitol Hill, we passed both the Farm Bill and the health care reform. And despite the fact that there was a lot of rancor surrounding both of them, those are major pieces of legislation, and that was a lot of staff hours, a lot of member hours to get it done.
GALESo maybe there are people who disagree with the outcomes on what Congress is producing or what it like to see Congress to do more. But the reality is, Congress is still doing things, just not the things that everybody realizes so easily.
FITCHI guess I would add -- I have some concern over the future in part because it's not just partisanship in politics, it's partisanship in the media. And that is -- not everybody can be a WAMU listener, unfortunately. And there are too few of them.
FITCHBecause it is a problem. And I'll give you a statistic that I think is more concerning than the low approval rating. There is a survey, a public survey, done last summer and the American public were asked this question, do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Congress, my representative, cares what I think. My representative cares what I think. Only 16 percent, one-six, 16 percent of Americans would agree with that statement.
FITCHNow, in a democracy, that's scary when 84 percent of the people in a Democratic population don't think their representative is listening to them. And I think that's probably the biggest problem. And I think Congress, to some extent, is to blame for it. That they should do a better job of communicating that they're listening because Rebecca and Chris both know that that's the number one job of Congress.
FITCHThey're the best pollsters in the world because they're the only pollsters who if they get the answer wrong, they lose their job and just ask, you know, soon-to-be former Congressman Eric Cantor. You know, they do listen, but there is this perception that they don't. And I think, in large part, it's because that the media has a built-in factor of looking for negative. And I'll give one last anecdote. I had an opportunity to talk this with Dan Brokaw (sic) , a great news anchor.
FITCHI was on a trip with some press secretary to New York. And it was around the time that NBC had a segment on the "NBC Nightly News" called "The Fleecing of America."
FITCHAnd it was just about bad government news. And I asked him, you got a CODIS system for running negative government news. Shouldn't there be a balance? Shouldn't you run something about when Congress works? And he had a great quote. He said, Brad, you know, we don't cover the story the day the bank wasn't robbed. And that's really relevant because that's the media's business model is no one ever got a Pulitzer Prize for pointing out that government worked.
NNAMDINope. We are in the business of saying that news when the unexpected happens. And we expect things to work. So when things don't work, they're news. When they do work, they're not. But here's Henry in Arlington, VA. Henry, you're on the air, go ahead please.
HENRYFirst of all, thank you for holding this show on this topic. It's a great topic. I've worked on the Hill approximately eight years and then the executive for four, and in the NGO world for 20. And I work with the Hill. And my impression is things have changed over the last 30 years and not necessarily for the better. In particular, oversight function, probably the most important function of government in the legislative branch has atrophied dramatically.
HENRYAnd I blame not just partisanship but television and televising the hearings. Maybe we need to put them on radio, it would be better. There wouldn't be so much grandstanding. The staff gets discouraged that doesn't suggest hearings. They wait and react to events before they hold a hearing. It didn't use to be that way. And it's very, very disheartening.
NNAMDIDaniel Scandling, what would be your response to that?
SCANDLINGYou know, the staff up here works hard. The members work hard. It comes back to a perception too of what's getting done and what's not getting done. I would argue that Congress needs to get back to regular order and passing this appropriations bill, particularly here in northern Virginia where you have a huge audience that depend on the federal government. I mean, we -- these guys can't keep operating on these C.R.s and things like that.
SCANDLINGThey got to know, we're going to pass some bills and go to that. But, again, we -- what's again happened is they get held hostage over one thing or another. And both sides are guilty. I think that's one of the things that people had -- are too quick to do, they blame the Republicans. And I work for a Republican. It's easy to always blame the Tea Party. But it's both sides. Both sides will play games and hold things hostage as they're trying to do things.
SCANDLINGAs far as oversight, he's right. There -- that's Congress' role. And, look, there -- it's okay if you have an oversight hearing. And you know what, maybe everything will come out okay. And maybe it was just a hiccup, sometimes there are bigger problems. There doesn't always have to be a scandal and you don't always have to -- depending who's in trouble, you don't have to play, gotcha. The oversight is to make sure the government's running effectively.
NNAMDIHere's another analogy, Chris. Most people think of Congress as a monolithic place. But one could argue that it's really a building complex that houses more than 535 small businesses. What similarities do you see between a small business and a congressional office?
MCCANNELLIt's a great question, Kojo. I think, first of all, what you see is you see 535 different individual representatives and senators, each with their own agenda and each with their own background and priorities. And I think if you look at it from the macro perspective, you don't appreciate what you see in the micro, which is incredible diversity, which is, I think, the Congress is going to have over a hundred women.
MCCANNELLAnd both the House and the Senate, which is the largest record ever, still probably should be better. But it's a great success and the Senate as well, a record number of women there, minorities as well, African Americans and Latinos. So I think you don't appreciate the diversity that people bring. And that diversity, I think, manifest itself and each member giving their own stamp and mission for their office and their outlook and how they're going to engage with their constituency.
MCCANNELLI think on another sense, too, and for our viewing audience and the folks who have worked on Capitol Hill is these are also small businesses in that you have a budget on the House side of about $1.4 million on average. In the Senate, it's a little bit larger but where each individual representative has that authority to set the budget and the priorities that they want to. So, you're also, like, I think, most small businesses in America, Congress as well is dealing with paying salaries, paying benefits, renting space, buying new computers. All this -- all the stuff that small businesses do every day on Main Street.
NNAMDIRebecca, you actually argue that Senate offices are almost entirely different types of organizations. How so?
GALEWell, Senate -- Senate is different. As Chris said, their budgets are determined by the state size. So New York Senate office would have a much larger budget than, say, a Maine Senate office would. And Senate's in some ways are sort of a hundred different fiefdoms rather than small businesses. They have their own rules and culture. And even though the salary reports show that Senate salaries have gone down, in a Senate office there tends to be a little more infrastructure in place.
GALEYou can pay staffers a little bit better if you'd like to. You have more flexibility. And, I think, the Senate staffers, because of that, are more seasoned and senators have a six-year term. And that's a big difference than a two-year term when running for re-election is constantly at the forefront of a member's mind. So six years means you can spend some time legislating. You can take a few more risks.
GALEYou can bring on staff that will know, you know, the senator's style really well and can learn the issues and learn the state and they can get a casework team back in your state that has a lot more experience. It's not just one or two people handling these immigration or passport claims. You can have a team of a dozen people doing that. So that's sort of is the tip of the iceberg on why the Senate is different. But I think that sort of explains why the office structures may look very different than the House ones.
FITCHAnd I would add to Chris's comment, they are small businesses. And Chris and I actually set up a freshman office the same year together some years ago. But setting up a congressional office and running it is like setting up a small business without the hicks that go along with it with all the red tape of a bureaucracy. You've got to deal with a lot of forms. You got to deal with a lot of rules. Members of Congress don't get handed a checking account and saying, okay, go do this.
FITCHYou got to jump through a lot of hoops. I just spent the last two days, Thursday and Friday, training senior aides of members-elect. And, you know, we got done of eight hours of indoctrination and their jaws were down. Their eyes were wide. They're like, what the hell have I gotten into? And members are getting that same sort of experience right now as they start to realize the incredible amount of demands that are going to be put on them immediately.
FITCHAnd, you know, they didn't even get a break from the election. I mean, they got literally elected last Tuesday and they're back in town Wednesday with the orientation.
NNAMDIAnd in your case, Dan Scandling, that that mean that you'll be praying, in a way, to go out of business.
SCANDLINGKojo, you broke up on me.
NNAMDIIn a way, are you therefore preparing to go out of business?
SCANDLINGYeah. Yeah, our office is pretty much packed up. In fact, we move out of our office suite next Monday. We -- as soon as the House finish its business September, we started packing everything up. I've got about a hundred boxes in our back office that are archives of Mr. Wolf's. And when the staff leaves on Friday -- the D.C. staff leaves on Friday, they'll take all their personal stuff and they'll be done.
SCANDLINGWe'll be closing our Herndon office just before Christmas. But I guess what happens here is all the -- unlike the Senate, the freshmen members on January 3rd will have an office to come to. And they will -- they will have desks, they will have computers, they'll have a TV so they can monitor the floor. And all these suites start changing up here. Whereas the Senate they won't get into their offices until March, April.
SCANDLINGThey do it differently than the House. This office at -- if somebody were to come by Mr. Wolf's suite next Tuesday morning, they wouldn't find it. It isn't -- the nameplates will not be on the door.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation on why people still choose to work in Congress. We're talking about Capitol Hill staffers. You can call us at 800-433-8850. I see all the lines are tied up. We will try to get to all of your calls. In the meantime, shoot us an email to email@example.com or a tweet at @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're having a conversation on why Capitol Hill staffers choose to work in Congress. We're talking with Christopher McCannell. He's a former chief of staff to two Democratic members from New York. He also worked in the Senate. Today's he's Washington office director for APCO Worldwide. Daniel Scandling is chief of staff for Congressman Frank Wolf, Republican, North Virginia. He's retiring at the end of this Congress.
NNAMDIHe worked on the Hill, as Dan has, in a variety of positions for 24 years. Rebecca Gale is editor and writer with Roll Call, and author of "The Hill Navigator Blog," at rollcall.com. She's a former Hill staffer. And Brad Fitch is president and CEO of Congressional Management Foundation. We have had a lot of callers, so allow me to do them justice. Let's go to Rena, in Washington, D.C. Rena, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RENAHi, Kojo. Big fan of the show. And I just wanted to say, in speaking of diversity, I'm a female Indian American, young Republican strategist. I'm under 35. And I used to work for two different members of the House. They're now senior members. And, you know, despite having achieved some really great successes out here on my own for the past four years, I've made considerably more money than I ever made on the Hill. There's still a desire to want to go back and work for one of these men and women.
RENAAnd it's kind of funny. There's two reasons behind it. One is it's a partisanship. I've was traveling the Republican presidential primary trail in 2011 and most of 2012. And I, as well as many of your other panelists, know that to get anything done up on the Hill it's all about shaking hands with the other side. So to me it's less partisan. And secondly, it's about the chemistry. I mean, when a staffer -- even someone line me -- finds someone that they really believe in, you really walk on coals to get to work for them.
RENABut it's insuring that chemistry between a staffer and the member to insure that the staffer really keeps the job. So I think that's what's really interesting in today's day and age. I'd go back if I found the perfect member.
GALEI've heard that a lot. I'd go back if I found the perfect member. I think I completely agree with what Rena says. If you have a connection to your boss, if you believe in what they're doing, it is an incredibly rewarding job. And you're willing to put in that extra time. You're willing to take that pay cut. And you're willing to do whatever it takes to get your boss's agenda out there, to write those constituents back, to hold press conferences at odd hours because you believe in what they're doing.
GALESo I do think finding the right boss is something that a lot of people want. Even current Hill staff. You know, Hill Navigator takes a lot of questions from readers. And one of the questions we get quite frequently is how do I know I'm working for the right member of Congress? Is there something better out there for me?
GALEAnd I think you sort of see that ambition with Hill staffers who are happy with where they are, but maybe there's something better, maybe there's a better fit, maybe there's a member who will hold them in higher esteem, with a better title or more money. So I completely agree and I think it's something a lot of people are striving for.
FITCHThe challenge that we see -- to follow up on Rebecca's comments -- is we would like to see better management on Capitol Hill. I mean that from just an office standpoint. Keep in mind that most people that move up in offices or get elected to office aren't being rewarded because of their management skills. It's because of their political and communication skills.
FITCHSo one of the survey numbers that we see that's a little disturbing, in terms of Congressional staff, is when they're asked what's very important to them, 80 percent will say communications with my supervisor. When asked whether they are very satisfied with that communication, only maybe 30 percent will say yes. There's a big differential. So we definitely have some work to do from a management standpoint to get these leaders to recognize that they have some amazing talent working for them, but they've got to communicate to them more frequently.
NNAMDIWhich brings me to Steve, in Washington, D.C. Steve, your turn.
STEVEHi, Kojo. Great show. Let me put in a plug for Brad Fitch, the most under-utilized, valuable organization probably…
FITCHThank you, thank you, Steve.
STEVE…on Capitol Hill (unintelligible). You're welcome.
FITCHThe check is in the mail.
NNAMDIThank you, Steve Fitch, but, go ahead, please.
STEVEI started out as an intern in Washington in the '70s actually, as one of those bright-eyed, excited young college grads. And I worked all the way up to the Clinton administration, both in the House and the Senate. So a couple of observations to add to your great panel. The first, really has to do with the fact that the experience of staffers is really very different than the experience of members. And the two worlds just don't come together that often.
STEVEYou spend a lot of time at the staff level trying to figure out what your job is and how you can make your job interesting. And the members really spend more time in their world and I don't think you get to spend as much time with them. Now, obviously that didn't stop me from staying up there for…
NNAMDIWell, allow me to ask Dan Scandling about that. Because as chief of staff, Dan, that's something you have to be aware of, that you may have staffers who would like to interact more with the member. How do you handle that?
SCANDLINGEvery member is different. And I think the Senate is much different than the House. I was fortunate. Both members I worked for, there was no hierarchy. We are a very flat organization. Today, when Mr. Wolf walks in or three months ago when Mr. Wolf would walk in, he would walk in the front door and he'd go right back and talk to an L.A. Hey, I need this, this and this.
SCANDLINGOr he would talk -- that's, let's say, the assistant or he would talk to an L.C. or he may even talk to a staff assistant. There was never everything has to go through some chain, which was great. It was very rewarding. And the way I managed it was I told the staff, hey, I need to know when he comes and gives you something because Mr. Wolf and I travel throughout the District and even internationally together, that, you know, three weeks from now when he turns to me and goes, hey, did so-and-so get something done? And I don't know what he asked them to do.
SCANDLINGI can't, you know, I can't -- I don't know what to say. But -- so every member is different. I mean, there are some offices that are very hierarchal and, yeah, everything has to go through the chain of command. And that's all dependent on the member. And an office takes on a member's personality, too. If a member wants to, you know, be laid back, the office could be laid back. If a member's an aggressive member, the office is going to be aggressive.
MCCANNELLI'd agree with Dan. I think as far as, you know, the staffers and members, they both bring unique experiences, but also complimentary.
NNAMDIBut when you're working for different members, as you have, one has to adjust to that member's style of management, if you will.
MCCANNELLExactly. The member's style of management, their issues, what their mission is, what their ideas are of how they want to represent their district. I think, you know, to our caller -- to Steve's point -- and I've been on Capitol Hill -- I came in 1991. And so I've seen -- had about 15 years of Capitol Hill experience. And it's become a lot more of a flatter environment and a lot more of a dynamic environment. The demands on the members' time, on the workday have exceeded.
MCCANNELLI think the hours and capability of the staff, that you have a lot more staff involved in a lot more different opportunities. And it's just, frankly, from just the nature of the beast right now in the House and Senate. And I think that you see a lot of the smart offices, smart Senate and House offices are going to utilize their staff. And they're going to actually be a proxy for the member, to help advance his or her agenda.
NNAMDIIn preparing for this show we talked to a whole bunch of people, Democrats and Republicans. And everyone independently cited one event as a horrible low point in morale on the Hill. When Congressional staff were forced to go onto the D.C. Health Exchange for their health benefits. Rebecca, first remind us exactly what was happening at this time last year for staffers.
GALEWell, I can speak to it. I'm sure Brad can add.
GALEBut as part of the Affordable Care Act, Congressional staff were not going to maintain their federal health benefits. Instead they were going to go into the D.C. exchange system. So for some staffers -- for a number of staffers this was a complicated process and it took away one of their great benefits, which is federal health care and the low premiums and the great health care that comes with that.
GALESo I know that when it happened a number of staffers had talked to Brad Fitch in CMF and they said this was going to -- this is it. We're going to head out of here. We're done.
FITCHI had an 18-year veteran of Capitol Hill in November last year call my office and said exactly that. Like, I'm looking for a job, this is it. Because they were being used as a punching bag, as a political chip, getting knocked around. Democrat, Republican, it didn't matter, they were really depressed. And so the Congressional Management Foundation did a survey of senior managers around a variety of things that had happened, frozen salaries, the furloughs and of course this major shift in health care.
FITCHAnd we asked which of the following will have an effect on your staff possibly requiring you to lose a staff member. And almost 80 percent of the senior managers felt that the changes in health care would result in them losing a staff member. It's really sad. I mean, you can say what you will about Obamacare and, you know, I'm a nonpartisan, non-policy organization, but the idea that you're not going to treat employees well, the reason -- the idea that you're going to take away their health care benefits, it's -- to me it was astonishing and it was offensive.
FITCHAnd it offended a lot of Congressional staffers. And I'm not surprised that that was considered a low point. And it was really tragic. And things have worked out a little better for them. The junior staffers actually are paying a lower premium we're hearing, under the D.C. exchange. But if you're out in Wyoming or Utah, you're getting your health care through the D.C. exchange and that may not be the most convenient thing for you.
NNAMDIDan Scandling, how has the experience been on the D.C. health exchange?
SCANDLINGFor me, the Wolf office -- everybody in the Wolf office went into the D.C. exchange. Some offices allowed their staff to decide. We said, no, this is the law. We're going to do it. I think the thing that really stuck at me more than anything, though, was it wasn't all of the Congressional staff. It was personal office staff. There was -- this was a little game that was played from the Senate where it was we're going to dump the personal staff into the exchange, but the committee staff and leadership, they're not impacted.
SCANDLINGThat's kind of what got me. It's like, hey, look, if you're going to change the rules, I get it. But it needs to be universal. You can't just say, well, committee staff, it -- that's not going to apply. It's just going to be the personal office. And again, personal -- I work in a personal office. I work for Mr. Wolf. He is retiring. I'm out of a job. The committee staff is a different -- that's a whole different beast. And to create a structure that a committee staff could stay in the FEHBP, yet the personal office went back into -- or was put into Obamacare didn't sit well with a lot of people.
FITCHIt reminds me of that old quote from partisanship, where a senior member was talking to a junior member. And the junior member was talking, you know, the Democrats are the enemy. And he said the Democrats aren't the enemy, the Senate is the enemy.
NNAMDIChris, I can't help but see parallels to broader criticisms of unpaid internships and other entry level jobs. If you don't pay a living wage for these jobs you won't get qualified people who have heavy student loans or other expenses. We got an email from Molly, who asks, "Some of your guests and callers have said love of their job on the Hill balances the lack of pay. Could they discuss how that has impacted their financial life?
NNAMDI"I've looked into working on the Hill, but don't know how I would be able to afford living in D.C. or even Maryland and take the pay cut. Any tips or insight would be appreciated."
MCCANNELLI think it's really hard. I think there are a lot of sacrifices. And if you look at the folks that Capitol Hill attracts, I think there's a couple different strands. Number one is there's always been a strong internship program of people who are looking to see whether or not public service is right for them. And for a number of them -- myself included -- that did mean going to work on Capitol Hill. I think for people nowadays who are trying to come to Capitol Hill, the sacrifice is coming to almost a tipping point.
MCCANNELLBecause if you look at salaries that have been reduced from the -- from Capitol Hill cutting the expenses and from what they can pay their staffers, to reductions up to 20 percent in a recent commercial research service report on staff positions, you're actually seeing that instead of just, you know, keeping pace or hoping to maybe go up, people are actually starting to lose wages, which is not a great place to be in this economic environment.
MCCANNELLAnd to the point on health care, I think the whole issue around the Affordable Care Act, no matter what the politicians felt and what position they were on, it's like now you've actually taken that and you've taken a political debate and you put it onto your employees. And, you know, and this isn't something that we would accept in private industry amongst -- or in Fortune 500 companies, but we did do this with the Capitol Hill staffers, which creates even more uncertainty, perhaps more cost just to certain staffers.
MCCANNELLSo, you know, what I would say is, you know, for a lot folks I think on the starting point, you know, a lot of people go into group houses, they have a lot of roommates, they eat a lot of Ramen Noodles and free receptions on Capitol Hill, but the challenge really is -- it's not really the recruitment, which Rebecca said has always been there, but it's the retention. It's retaining the best and brightest staffers.
NNAMDIRebecca, you are in a unique position as a reporter on this topic, since you went from being a Hill staffer to reporting on them. Tell us about Hill Navigator.
GALEWell, Hill Navigator is a blog, it's a column that runs in Roll Call, which covers Capitol Hill. And Hill Navigator is designed essentially to be a workplace advice column just for Hill staff. I mean, people within the Capitol Hill community also read it and submit their queries, but in general it's the idea that Capitol Hill is a unique culture. And they have unique workplace concerns.
GALEAnd actually I wanted to briefly respond to Molly's comment. And I think one of the issues is there's only a few fixed points of entry for Hill staff. And a lot of it is the entry-level jobs. People who are just out of college. And when you are 22, 23, it's when the roommates and Ramen Noodles that Chris alluded to is more palatable. But if you have 5 or 10 years' experience and you want to work on Capitol Hill, that's where you're seeing a lot of obstacles. That's where the pay cut comes in and that's where it's not an easy place to get into.
NNAMDIWe're out of time, but I wanted to quickly read this email from Joe, who said, "I was told by a senator that the closing of the Congressional bars was one of the greatest impediments to cooperation in Congress because the bar gave the opportunity for members to bump into one another without planning and to informally raise matters." Yes or no, Brad Fitch?
FITCHOh, yeah, closing bars is terrible for politics.
NNAMDIBrad is president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation. Rebecca Gale is editor and writer with Roll Call and author of "The Hill Navigator Blog," at rollcall.com. Daniel Scandling is chief of staff for Congressman Frank Wolf, who's retiring at the end of this 213th Congress. And Christopher McCannell is a former chief of staff to two Democratic members. He also worked in the Senate. Today he's Washington office director with APCO Worldwide. Thank you all for joining us and thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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