Memoirs of a Capitol Hill Staffer

"Andy, you have yourself a real nice day!"
--Bob Hale, Eau Claire, Wisconsin (1993)

Who was Bob Hale and why was he wishing me such good cheer? We'll get to that in a minute.

Twenty years ago, I was a somewhat lethargic undergraduate, slogging through my political theory coursework and trying to decipher the ramblings of classic thinkers such as Kant, Rousseau and Nietzsche. A merciful side trip to Early America brought the storied words of James Madison to my attention and gave me a glimpse of my future. "If men were angels, no government would be necessary." In nine simple words, Madison managed to instill in me what three years of studying political philosophy could not; an appreciation for coherent syntax, and a clear understanding of the role of the state in human affairs. This brought an epiphany, and opened my eyes to the virtues of service in government.

Buoyed by idealism, and perhaps a dash of naiveté, I set my sights on the United States Congress, the one working environment hospitable to those quirky few who find their life inspiration in The Federalist Papers. Surely this would be a place where high-minded principles would be welcomed and embraced.

One year and a handful of unpaid internships later, I found myself breathlessly ripping open my first box of embossed, foil-stamped business cards. I had just turned 23, and there it was printed formally on small pieces of #80 stock paper, enshrined for eternity. I was officially a Capitol Hill staffer and an officer of the United States Senate. No matter that the compensation was paltry and my cubicle was slightly larger than a shoebox. This was Prime Time. In full disclosure, the italics on my new business cards said I was a "Legislative Correspondent", which is Hill-speak for answering the Senator's mail and fielding calls from irate constituents. Which brings me to Bob Hale.

Bob was a regular caller to our Washington office. He was a polite, mild-mannered retiree who disagreed with my Senator on just about every issue. He also thought it was his citizen duty to dial our office every day, recite our offenses and register his disapproval. Enter the Legislative Correspondent.

After making the rookie error of sharing with him my direct extension, Bob and I became frequent phone companions. There was a choreography to our conversations. He would express his views on our record or votes, with ample distortions and exaggerations, and I would try my level best to stick to our official talking points and keep my temper in check. I almost always failed. The old geezer knew where my buttons were, and he masterfully pressed every one. And yet, I liked Bob, a great deal. He had a sense of humor, and while our discussions were often heated, they always had a respectful tone. As quarrelsome as we were, our words were never personal. Bob was well aware he wasn't going to change any minds, yet he called week after week. He may have been the truest democrat (little "d") I ever knew. He ended every conversation with a very sincere "Andy, you have yourself a real nice day!"

I did have a life outside of Bob, and my spirits soared as my work responsibilities grew. I began spending less time fencing with grouchy constituents and their pitchforks, and more time authoring high-profile legislation, speechwriting and hobnobbing with Senators. Even the money got a little better, and I was soon up to three meals a day. Yet I hardly considered Capitol Hill a long-term career option. Few do. Twinkies have longer shelf lives than most Hill staffers, with typical service lasting two or three years. "Burnout" is an oft-cited phrase found in the Congressional lexicon, right next to "filibuster" and "Not Guilty, Your Honor". The long hours, frenetic pace, pressure-cooker environment and, worst of all, the endless and agonizing monitoring of C-SPAN require the application of Dog Year Rules. One working year on Capitol Hill seems like seven human years.

By my eighth year and now a 30-something, I had reached a crossroads, as a scarcity of income and sleep, as well as chronic datelessness, demanded a life change. I moved to an executive branch agency as a legislative liaison officer and senior policy advisor, working with Congress, but not in Congress. My long distance relationship with the Hill stretched another six years before I felt compelled to break it off and leave for the private sector. Today we're just friends, no benefits.

John Adams said "I have found one useless man to be a shame; two is a law firm, and three or more become a Congress." Sure, Mr. Adams, Congress is certainly an easy target -- America's national piñata. Most Americans have a perception that Congress is a largely dysfunctional institution, where raw partisan politics and powerful interest groups have driven a permanent wedge between the two parties. In truth, Congress really is a largely dysfunctional institution, where raw partisan politics and powerful interest groups have driven a permanent wedge between the two parties. The acerbic debates over stimulus spending and health care reform, coupled with last year's debacle over the national debt have only intensified the public's antipathy of Congress. Most Americans believe Congress has become a clear and present danger to the nation. The two parties once insisted on facing each other with dueling pistols; today, they have even dumbed this down, continually shooting our country in the foot.

Yet for all of the ridicule and scorn, the endless fodder provided for Leno and Letterman, and the downright abysmal approval ratings, there are few places of employment in greater demand than Capitol Hill. There are young people with Masters degrees and Ivy League MBAs enthusiastically answering phones and sorting mail, simply as a means to climb the office ladder. With constant staff turnover, today's junior legislative staff member is tomorrow's chief of staff. That foot in the door, however, comes with a cost. For most entry and mid-level positions, compensation can be meager. The starting salary for a junior legislative staff member can be as little as $25,000, a modest sum in Washington, D.C. Yet there is little grousing from the staff, as there are countless candidates at the door who will gleefully take less to fill their jobs.

In some respects, the Hill is like any other place of employment. Yes, there are partisan politics, but there are also office politics. Cloak and dagger romances among the staff. Those people who help themselves to a mug of coffee every morning, but refuse to contribute to the communal fund. Mind-numbing IT paralysis. Shakedowns for Girl Scout cookies and other charitable causes.

And like any other workplace in America, the staff are not monolithic. While I can readily recall personal anecdotes that involved some of the most pretentious, ethically-challenged and self-serving individuals in human history, it would be an injustice to paint all Hill staffers with such a broad brush. The majority of the men and women there have endless ambition, but they are also industrious, dedicated and passionate public servants, whatever their political convictions may be.

While I greatly treasure every day, month and year I spent working on the Hill and as a liaison officer, I am thankful to no longer run in those circles. For every conscientious statesmen in office, we have also elected a dozen grenade-throwers who measure success in terms of constituencies pandered to, election victories tallied, and political points scored in the media. Partisan sniping and ethical lapses can be found in almost every legislature dating back to the Roman Senate, yet the increasingly strident discourse and scathing personal attacks have damaged Congress severely, perhaps beyond repair.

The toxicity that pervades Capitol Hill today simply did not exist twenty years ago, and the gradual polarization has had clear consequences. Both Republicans and Democrats, consumed with election strategies and the acquisition of power, have become implacable adversaries, appraising every national issue through an optic of self-interest and political dogma. Statesmanship often requires compromise, but compromise is now considered capitulation. It is the sworn enemy of righteousness, anathema to the far left and the far right, and secretly loathed by a high-decibel, instant-news media culture that races to identify winners and losers on every political issue. Democrats and Republicans who show any willingness to stray from the party line are banished to a legislative gulag by their leaders, only paroled once cleansed of impurities such as moderation and independent thought.

Like all Hill alumni, I could write volumes about the extraordinary experiences and opportunities working in Congress. On the Senate floor, listening to the boss read the first Senate speech I had ever written, sitting within reach of Daniel Webster's desk, while icons like Ted Kennedy and Bob Dole strolled by. Evening games in the Senate Softball League, played on the grass and gravel of the National Mall, where we caught fly balls while charging through swarms of tourists. The legislation we were able to enact that rescued a small family-owned business in our state and saved more than 400 jobs. Sometimes, I even miss old Bob Hale.

There is still some nobility on Capitol Hill. If you can tune out the racket of half-crazed Members trading insults with each other, and wade through the sea of endless "look at me!" press releases and recycled talking points that eviscerates a national forest every day, you can find it. Late in my Hill tenure, I had the privilege of working for a true anomaly, a Senator who cared only about actual results and nothing about credit received. When two of our constituents from Nevada went missing in a private plane over the Gulf of Mexico, he cleared his schedule, and spent an entire day at a small table in his office, with a phone in each hand, coordinating with the Coast Guard, our Ambassador in Mexico City, the U.S. military, anyone who could help find our constituents. His last call of the day was anguishing as he conveyed his heartfelt condolences to the family. There would be no self-promotion of his efforts, and thus little public praise or fanfare for all that the Senator did that day. Quiet results were his style. Today, we are saddled with a Congress that knows neither the meaning of "quiet" nor "results".

Make no mistake; I harbor not a single regret for my time on the Hill. It was the highest privilege, and I am immensely grateful for those who provided me with those extraordinary opportunities and experiences. The humbling and prideful sensation I felt two decades ago when I first stepped on the Hill had nothing to do with ideology or political association. It was about the rich history and stature of the institution. I hope that future generations of Hill staffers are able to build similarly lasting memories that they can one day reminisce with similar satisfaction and nostalgia. There are still lots of Bob Hales out there in the country, and we owe them our service.