“When it comes to taking action, that’s a personal choice,” he says. “I think people might not speak out as often as they should. I think you have to take ethics over loyalty.”
But many Hill staffers are unwilling to engage in even the mildest criticism of the boss. What’s a common pastime for many workers — bellyaching about their employer — is taboo, except among the smallest and most trusted circle of friends.
Ben McKay, a longtime Hill staffer who is now a lobbyist with the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, says that entry to the fellowship of Capitol Hill staff comes with an unspoken pact.
“The deal is that when we let you in, you don’t reveal the warts,” says McKay, who worked for former Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.). “That’s considered a distraction from the real work. And from the perspective of everyone up there, this is really important work, and it shouldn’t be diminished just because you want to complain.”
Sometimes, even as staffers tell on the boss, they try to minimize the damage. They might take their concerns to party leadership as a way of keeping potential scandal in the family.
“Everything is so partisan that it becomes a question of ‘How do I betray in the right way?’” one House staffer says.
For example, when staff members feared that then-Rep. Mark Foley’s (R-Fla.) contact with teenage pages was inappropriate, they contacted Republican leadership to deal with the problem.
And that’s even if they recognize behavior as unethical or improper. Many Hill veterans say staffers often come to think that serving the boss means serving the public good. If the boss asks a young staffer to pick up his dry cleaning, for example, the aide might rationalize that doing errands like that leaves the boss free to focus on important work.
“Some Members cultivate that sense that their happiness is the goal,” a former House staffer says. “And you have to remember that to these young staffers, Members are like demigods.”
Capitol Hill’s culture isn’t the only thing that discourages tattletales. Congressional employees have none of the whistle-blower protections that shield workers in the private sector and elsewhere in government. Until 1995, Congress was exempt from a broad array of employment laws, including labor and safety regulations. But even as Congress voted to make its halls more like traditional workplaces, it didn’t make itself subject to the kind of regulations that encourage employees to call out problems when they see them. So the staffer who confronts the boss for breaking an ethics rule and gets fired for it has no legal recourse.
Taking complaints to the Ethics committees can be tricky, too. In the Senate, a Member who is the subject of an ethics complaint is first given the chance to respond to the allegations, which include specifics that make anonymity impossible.
On the other hand, staffers who report sexual harassment or other discriminatory behavior may get redress. The Office of Compliance handles such complaints for both chambers; cases go through mediation and can move to a hearing or to court if they’re not resolved.
Lois Lerner, director of exempt organizations for the IRS, arrives for a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the investigation of the IRS' targeting of political groups. Lerner invoked her Fifth Amendment right to not testify and caused a protest from some committee members when she offered an opening statement and engaged in dialogue with members before invoking the right.
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.