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Even in other high-stress jobs, such as those at big law firms, the worst that could happen is that a client is unhappy or loses a case — a bad outcome, to be sure, but paltry compared to the millions of Americans potentially affected by Congress' every move.
Rep. Jim McDermott was a psychiatrist before he came to D.C., but he says it doesn't take a doctor to diagnose Congress' problems. The Washington state Democrat notes that some of the most intense moments on Capitol Hill — including the current debt ceiling debate — are intentionally created to force action.
"How do you get people to come to a decision?" he asks. "That's what you're watching right now. The squeeze is being put on."
In other words, if Congress wasn't a pressure cooker, nothing would get cooked.
CMF President Brad Fitch says the organization once identified the working environment most similar to Congressional offices: hospital emergency rooms.
"You have young people in stressful situations, making decisions that affect people's lives," he says. "Everybody's working 60 hours a week and their decisions make a difference. Sound like Capitol Hill?"
That stress can even lead to medical problems.
Robb Watters is a lobbyist who plays an unusual role on Capitol Hill. Watters, managing partner at the Madison Group, is also a volunteer board member of the George Washington University Medical Faculty Associates, a post that enables him to serve as a one-man referral service to Members, staffers and other lobbyists seeking advice about medical care.
Watters says that of the 30 or so calls he fields a week, many are seeking care for ailments that can be stress-related. Gastrointestinal illnesses and heart problems, some of the most common complaints, can be triggered by stress or poor diet. And the orthopedic problems many suffer from — bad backs and knees for example — are exacerbated by long days treading the Capitol's unforgiving marble floors.
"There's so much stress in this lifestyle," he says. "How we work and the hours and the nutrition. We're always grabbing food on the go."
But staffers are so busy that even learning to manage that tension can be another task to juggle. The CMF recently scheduled a workshop for House chiefs of staff to show them how to better manage on-the-job stress. But as the date approached, it became clear that the deficit talks roiling the Hill would decrease attendance.
Fitch sees the irony in staffers being too stressed out to attend a class on learning to chill.
"We had to postpone it until the schedule cleared a little," he says.