The office of Rep. Donald Payne, who died earlier this year, is being run by his staff under the supervision of the Clerk of the House. The offices main priority now is constituent services.
So all operations become focused on constituent services and handling casework requests. In this way, district offices experience fewer changes in the transition from political to nonpartisan office: They were already making casework and constituent services their top priority.
But in Washington, D.C., where offices prioritize legislative advocacy and have day-to-day activities that typically revolve around a Member’s Congressional schedule and political agenda, the shift requires an adjustment.
“I think that was the hardest part, not being able to advocate for any particular issue once you didn’t have a Member,” said one staffer whose boss resigned in the middle of the legislative session. “It was frustrating for many people at first.”
Everyone becomes part staff assistant, pitching in on fielding constituent calls, responding to casework requests and undertaking administrative responsibilities.
There are always gaps to fill, especially when staffers leave to take positions with other organizations or Capitol Hill offices.
Staffs also have to oversee the office’s “shutdown” — settling outstanding payments and contracts, finalizing inventory and, perhaps the most time-consuming task, archiving years and years of paperwork.
“He was kind of a hoarder,” Matthew Mazonkey said with a laugh of his former boss, the late Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), who died while in office after nearly 40 years on Capitol Hill. “It’s no exaggeration — it took three full months to sort through everything.”
Changing Job Duties
The handful of staffers interviewed by Roll Call who have lived through the experience of working for a Member-less office all expressed initial feelings of disorientation following the Clerk’s takeover.
“I do think it was shocking and surprising,” said Mazonkey, who now works for Murtha’s successor (and former staffer) Rep. Mark Critz (D). “One day you’re working for a Member of Congress and the next day you’re suddenly told to stop doing what you’ve been doing for your entire career and focus on something else.”
But as one staffer who worked for a Member who resigned midway through the last Congress put it, House offices “come in more flavors than at Baskin-Robbins.”
So while there are similarities among offices in terms of their primary duties during a lawmaker’s absence, the pressures differ from suite to suite.
One staffer said his boss’s resignation came during appropriations season, forcing the team to struggle to find a way to represent constituents’ concerns for program funding when they had no lawmaker to push those concerns on the House floor.
Another staffer described a scenario in which everyone struggled to fill in the workload gaps as colleagues left in a mass exodus for other jobs.
Perhaps unique among the staffs that have dealt with Member-less offices over the past years is that of Giffords. For a year, her staff ran her Washington office with an expectation that she could return.
“We made a conscious decision early on that Gabby was elected Representative of this district and one crazed gunman would not overturn the will of the people,” former Communications Director C.J. Karamargin said. “So we assumed, and in a way we needed to believe, that Gabby would return to work. In our minds, she never left. She was injured on the job while performing her duties ... and we were determined to keep the office running while she recovered.”
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.