Behind each elected member of Congress delivering a speech, taking a vote, weighing a policy concern or trying to deliver for their district is a team of staff members helping make it happen.
From the House and Senate chambers to back offices in the surrounding campus buildings, the staffers of Capitol Hill keep the pulse of the legislative branch beating. They are drafting legislation, managing logistics, diving into research, resolving constituent concerns and sending press releases.
“They’re invisible people. They don’t often get much credit, but they do an enormous amount of work and effort to try to make the principal work. But it’s breathtaking how much of the work is actually done in preparation for the member,” said George Kundanis, a senior adviser to House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and longtime Democratic leadership aide.
‘Probably a little crazy’
Many of the 25 staffers who The Hill is highlighting for their contributions to making Capitol Hill run said that being in the thick of the legislative process, being able to advocate for their political beliefs, and simply being part of a key American institution is a major reward of the job — keeping them going through long days.
“Anyone who sticks around here for more than a couple of years is a true believer and probably a little crazy,” Tim Reitz, executive director of the House Freedom Caucus, said of staffers who work for the group’s members.
“You find a member that you believe in and who treats you right, and then you go to war with them. And I think that’s where you build trust. You fight in the trenches with these guys and you spend time with them,” Reitz said.
Kelly Dixon Chambers, the Republican staff director for the House Rules Committee and longtime Hill staffer, recalled a tough day on the House floor in 2011 after the rise of the Tea Party, when a member asked her, “How do you do this?”
“I remember sort of looking around the chamber and being like, ‘The worst day I ever had is still here,’” she said.
Brandon Yoder, a senior adviser to Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said long-tenured advisory careers on the Hill come with irreplaceable opportunities.
“Those of us who have the privilege to work in Congress know that this is a truly unique setting in which you have the opportunity to help draft laws, in our country, you have the opportunity to help shape the path of the executive branch,” Yoder said. “For those of us that work in foreign policy, you have the opportunity to participate in high level diplomacy at the highest levels.”
Fighting for workers’ rights
But the excitement and spectacle of working on Capitol Hill has led to staff being underpaid, overworked and burnt out, many staffers say. Those concerns led to a push to allow Congressional offices to unionize — and led to the unionization of the first Congressional offices over the last year.
“After years of, you know, being told that staffers need to kind of like stay out of the spotlight and remain in the shadow, you know, this was kind of like our last resort,” said Philip Bennett, former president of the Congressional Workers Union and director of operations for Rep. Summer Lee (D-Pa.).
“Staffers have a voice, they should use it more,” Bennett said. “I think staffers shouldn’t be afraid to speak up and advocate for themselves.”
According to Legistorm data, around 10,800 staff members work in member, committee or leadership offices. Most are under the age of 40, around half are women, and most are white.
“Diversity is something that I think is lacking on the Hill in a myriad of ways,” Bennett said.
But Kundanis, who is 73 and has worked on the Hill since 1976, said things are beginning to change.
“I went into my first meeting and it was all white men — the whole room. All the staff, all the members: all white men,” Kundanis said with a laugh. “And now, you know, it’s nearly the opposite.”
Building trust with lawmakers
Members of Congress may be the ones in the public eye, getting credit for successes but also blame for any failures. But one of their most important — and unseen — jobs is being a boss, hiring and managing a team of people around them.
Much of how a Capitol Hill office functions is dependent on the elected official’s personal style.
“There’s a whole wide range; there’s members that are the academic types and they want to know everything, and want to learn everything, and make their decisions that way,” said Veronica Duron, chief of staff to Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.). “And then there’s the members that are the CEO types. And they’re like, ‘don’t give me so much input, I just want enough — I trust my staff, help me make the decision.’”
When it comes to success on Capitol Hill for staffers, trust between the members and their staff — even when they disagree — is a major factor.
“You’ve got to be willing to hear what their districts are asking of them and demanding of them and figure out a way for that to fit into the overall party’s position and what’s the agenda,” Dixon Chambers said. “You’ve got to just be able to talk to them honestly about where we are.”
And members will not always take their staff’s advice.
“It’s not our pin. It’s not our voting card. And so staff always need to remember that they are there in a support capacity,” said Machalagh Carr, chief of staff for House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). “You make your pitch, but you’re always trying to just make sure that your boss is prepared.”
At the end of a long day, Carr says she feels the magnitude of the job, the Capitol and its history when she walks through the rotunda when it is empty.
“It’s easy to get wrapped up in the day — the work of the day. But I believe that America is the greatest social experiment of humankind, the history of mankind. So, to be here, to be even a small part of it, is a huge honor,” Carr said.
Mike Lillis, Rafael Bernal, and Mychael Schnell contributed.
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