Rep. Paul Broun might have the voting card of a Member of Congress, but the honorific he prefers is doctor, not Congressman.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro says she appreciates that people she meets, including constituents or new staffers, want to show respect by calling her “Congresswoman.” But, the Connecticut Democrat says, that’s not her name. “I’m just Rosa.”
DeLauro thinks being on a first-name basis puts people at ease. “The issue is to not create distance, and you want people to know, genuinely, that you’re accessible,” she says. “We don’t live in two different worlds. I happen to serve in this body, and they do what they do.”
And Sen. Sherrod Brown is “Sherrod” wherever he goes. That level of informality is relatively rare in a Senate office, and it took Meghan Dubyak, spokeswoman to the Ohio Democrat, awhile to adjust. “I found myself calling him ‘Senator,’” she says. “And he’d reply by calling me ‘press secretary.’ He’s generally very down-to-earth — which extends to his office.”
Meredith Persily Lamel, a consultant who works with Congressional offices, says whether the boss goes by “John” or “Chairman,” the important thing is to keep the monikers consistent. She thinks it’s difficult for staffers to talk to colleagues about their boss using his first name, then in the next breath take a constituent call in which they call him “Congressman Smith,” for example.
“Eventually, they’re going to slip, and that’s where consistency is helpful,” she says.
That’s why more senior staffers often call the boss by his or her first name and junior staffers use a more formal address.
Senior staffers, Lamel says, are better able to adjust the name to the situation — and they just have more practice switching gears.
Lamel says Members’ choices of what they want their staff to call them is personal and that a casual tone doesn’t mean a lack of reverence for the Member or the institution.
“Some of the offices I work with where the Member goes by a first name are those where staffers have the greatest respect and the most interest in the boss’s approval.”
But some say informality has its downside. In an era where Hill staffers wield quite a bit of power — thanks to bosses with plenty on their plates and a healthy dependence on delegating — a title still sends a powerful message.
“I think it’s generally good for staff to be reminded that they’re staff, not Members,” one Senate aide says. “It can be easy to substitute your own judgment for your boss’s.”
Doug McCann, a longtime Hill staffer who now teaches Congressional affairs at the University of Maryland and Georgetown University, says a level of formality is healthy.
“It helps remind us that there are only 535 people with those little badges,” he says. “The rest of us are just hired help.”
And no matter where on the matter their own boss stands, staffers agree that when addressing a Member who’s not their boss, formality always rules. In elevators, in the hallways or in meetings, the most respectful address seems to be the default position.
“It’s always ‘Congressman,’ or ‘Congresswoman,’ no question,” one GOP House staffer says. “You always remember that you’re representing your boss, but that doesn’t mean that you’re as familiar as your boss is with his colleagues.”
Roll Call has launched a new feature, Hill Navigator, to advise congressional staffers and would-be staffers on how to manage workplace issues on Capitol Hill. Please send us your questions anything from office etiquette, to handling awkward moments, to what happens when the work life gets too personal. Submissions will be treated anonymously.