Nobody it seems, likes the U.S. Congress. The 113th, which first assembled in January 2013 and will disperse next January, has so far been one of the least productive in history. In fourteen months, fewer than 80 of its bills have become law.
Although it did pass a farm bill and some money bills (including the Pay Our Military Act, which was necessary because of the government shutdown triggered by the inability of Congress and the president to agree on anything significant), a quick perusal of the list of statutes demonstrates either a lack of ambition or complete paralysis. Among the landmark laws we owe to the 113th Congress are the Reducing Flight Delays Act of 2013, the Freedom to Fish Act, and a law “To specify the size of the precious-metal blanks that will be used in the production of the National Baseball Hall of Fame commemorative coins.” At least they agreed on something.
If it didn’t pass major laws, what did Congress do? Well, through 2013 the House of Representatives did manage to vote to repeal or defund Obamacare forty-seven times. Then there was that sixteen-day shutdown of the federal government. For its part, the Senate finally invoked the “nuclear option,” a rules change that left Republicans screaming foul and promising payback. Immigration reform? The subject did come up a few times, but to no avail.
Can you imagine working there? Do idealistic young men and women still aspire to work for members of Congress? Or has the legislature’s incompetence sent them running to nonprofits and the Peace Corps?
Brown grads are not only working on Capitol Hill but still believe they can make a difference—or that someday they’ll make a difference. They choose to focus on what they can accomplish, whether it’s coming through for a constituent back in their boss’s district or helping two representatives from two different parties compromise and get a piece of legislation, no matter how small, to become law. Despite the cynicism and the falling Congressional poll numbers, idealism is alive and well among Brunonians. They hope that their own good will and the successes they are helping to achieve will form the basis for a swing back to respectability for the institution in which they work.
The BAM recently caught up with five staffers from the 113th Congress who were courageous enough to get together and talk publicly about how they have reconciled themselves to the poisoned partisan environment on the Hill and accepted that they may work 100-hour weeks on legislation that has little chance of ever being passed. Despite all this, they still believe they are doing good.
PARKER POLING ’99, the chief of staff for Republican representative Patrick McHenry, of North Carolina’s tenth Congressional district.
CAITIE WHELAN ’07, senior foreign policy adviser for Democratic representative Sam Farr of California’s twentieth Congressional district.
STEPHEN MARTINKO ’02, deputy staff director for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
JASON A. SMITH ’07, counsel for Democratic senator Mark Begich of Alaska on the Homeland Security and Intergovernmental Affairs Subcommittee on Emergency Management, Intergovernmental Relations, and the District of Columbia.
MARIAH SIXKILLER ’99, senior policy adviser to the House democratic whip, Maryland’s Steny Hoyer.
BAM So what’s it like to work in Congress right now?
MARTINKO In my view, there’s a lot less compromise. There’s been a reduction in the number of moderates on both sides. There used to be a strong caucus of what they called Blue Dog Democrats, who were centrist, and a large coalition of Main Street Republicans, who were in the middle. They’re gone and they used to have significant sway.
POLING My boss was a right winger when he was elected [in 2004]. Now he’s considered in the center in the House Republican caucus. He hasn’t shifted. It’s shifted around him.… It’s good and bad. Republicans are supposed to be the party of limited government. In the last years of the Bush administration, we drifted from that.
MARTINKO We’ve passed fewer laws than any other Congress.
SMITH And a lot of Congress thinks that’s good. The fewer laws, the better.
MARTINKO It felt more social when I started [in 2002].
POLING There’s less camaraderie on every level. It’s not just that members don’t hang out together. There’s a lot less mixing among staff.
BAM No one goes out together anymore?
POLING Lobbyists would take five or six staffers out to lunch, and they would all talk. You would get to know people that way. But they’re not allowed to do that anymore under the ethics rules.
WHELAN The people in this room are fairly exceptional because the average tenure of a Congressional staffer is two to three years. And that lifespan is actually getting shorter because the climate folks work in is tough. It’s a problem. You lose institutional memory with a high turnover. You lose comity. It’s brain drain and also relationship drain. The folks who stay longer have deep respect that crosses party lines. It takes another decade to build that up again.
BAM What was it like going through the government shutdown?
SIXKILLER It was pretty rough. The House is usually a very predictable place, where you have a sense of what will happen on the floor a week in advance. Now we didn’t know what was on the floor that day.
WHELAN It was not having answers for constituents. And people were calling with very legitimate questions. Those were very painful phone calls to take. You could understand people’s frustration.
POLING A lot of people would call and scream at you, too. We had a chunk of people who were angry the government had shut down and a chunk of people who were angry and thought the government should never open again. It was evenly split. The most you can say is, “I’ll pass your thoughts on to the Congressman.”
MARTINKO There was a feeling of a lack of control, no ability whatsoever to affect the outcome. You would sit back and watch events unfold on television just like a normal citizen.
WHELAN We couldn’t do our jobs. A lot of the anxiety came from not being able to have an impact. It was as if a big pause button had been pressed.
BAM Is there a lot of lingering ill will?
SIXKILLER Everyone’s moved on.
MARTINKO There’s no time. It’s a twenty-four-hour news cycle.
BAM What brought you to Washington?
SMITH I knew I wanted to get into politics because I had taken [Associate Professor of Political Science and Public Policy] Wendy Schiller’s class. I can’t say enough about the practical and important information she gave us about how to work the process and how things actually worked.
POLING I went to a really liberal high school, and my history teacher was talking about the New Deal and how it was the greatest thing that ever happened. I started disagreeing with him and then went to Brown and disagreed with everybody. I would literally meet people at Brown and say, “Hey, I’m Parker.” Right away I’d hear, “Oh, you’re the Republican.” After graduation, I was about to go become a lawyer when a friend I had met through the College Republican National Committee got elected to Congress and called me up and said, “Hey, I need a new chief of staff.” It was sort of out of the blue.
SIXKILLER I was supposed to go teach English outside Bogota, Colombia, and my parents, who had always said, “Go, free spirit, do whatever you want,” said, “Please don’t go there. It’s too dangerous.” So I interviewed for an internship in newly elected Senator [Charles] Schumer’s office. I graduated on May 31, Memorial Day, and started in Schumer’s office on June 4.
BAM How has working here changed your political beliefs?
POLING I’ve probably drifted further to the center.
SIXKILLER Me too.
POLING You start to see you do have to compromise. You have to get things done.
SMITH You start out thinking of the other side as either not compassionate or not as smart as your side. I really expected to dislike Republicans. But then you see that people here are very, very smart and they are compassionate. It just comes down to people having different world views, and that’s okay.
POLING We’re lovable.
SMITH You are lovable. And you understand that everyone’s in the same general struggle. We all have the same problems but go at them from different angles.
WHELAN Everybody comes into public office because they want to make things better. It’s just that we can have different ideas of what better is. There’s a high concentration of intellectual capital here, and people are using it in different ways. I have a lot of esteem for people across the aisle.
POLING If it was staff who did the voting, the government would never have shut down.
BAM Then why don’t your bosses feel the way you do?
POLING It’s external forces more than Congressional members—Super PACS, lobbyists. There are definitely some members who are not interested in compromise at all, but they’re actually not that numerous. They’re just very loud.
WHELAN Democracy is a big tent. That means there’s space for everyone. What’s tricky is when some voices get the microphone a lot more than others. A lot of different forces are enabling that, and I don’t know what it’s going to take to shift that dynamic.
BAM Why do you think these voices are getting so much attention now? If they’re only a small number, can’t the party leaders rein them in?
SIXKILLER [In 2010] Congress got rid of earmarks. I have a Republican friend who said that’s created a huge problem for their leadership. They have very little leverage because these guys can no longer bring money home.
BAM Is there anything that could get us out of this rut?
SIXKILLER We need some kind of campaign finance reform.
POLING Campaign finance reform is what got us into this in the first place. Money is like water up against the dam. There’s going to be a little leak over here and over there, and it’s going to find its way out.
WHELAN We’re in a cycle right now, and I think we will cycle out of it. I don’t know what it takes to accelerate that. I don’t know what it takes to shift the dynamic.
MARTINKO I haven’t seen a realistic solution.
WHELAN But it has to change. The current situation isn’t tenable.
SIXKILLER We need Brown grads elected to Congress, not staffing it.
BAM So how discouraged are you? Any thoughts of throwing in the towel?
SIXKILLER I don’t think it’s the most productive environment now. It could be. I believe the institution has to work and will work again, but I don’t think it’s working particularly well right now.
POLING I get fulfillment out of what I do. It’s not just about passing legislation. There’s an aspect of Congress where you are actually helping people on a day-to-day basis, and you can actually see the impact of your work and your boss’s work in making people’s lives better. We get calls where someone will say, “I didn’t get my government check,” and we’ll try to sort that out. You get cards or thank-you notes, or someone sends you baked goods. You just feel good about that.
MARTINKO The day that I drive to work and don’t get excited looking at the Capitol dome, that’s when I’ll know it’s time for me to leave.
BAM Stephen, you just had success. Your committee passed a water infrastructure bill.
MARTINKO My boss sat down with his counterpart and said, “Look, if we’re going to do this, let’s do it together. Let’s sit down and try and work it out.” And that’s what they did. We put together a very strong bill that met my boss’s conservative principles and also appealed to the Democrats. Each side respected the other. We got something done.
Lawrence Goodman is the BAM’s senior editor.