Frustrated by what they said was the California Democrat’s barrage of demands that they give up their free time to volunteer for her campaign, they did what most Hill staff are loath to do: They complained about the boss — to the press and to the Ethics Committee.
Bad behavior by Members of Congress hardly raises an eyebrow in Washington, D.C., anymore. But on Capitol Hill, where current and former staffers describe a culture of extreme loyalty, it’s still unusual for them to blow the whistle.
If Capitol Hill staffers had an insignia, it might very well be slugged “loyalty above all.”
“It absolutely is the quality most valued by lawmakers,” one former House staffer says. “The proximity to a Member is so close, and you’re seeing them at their best, at their worst, when they’re exhausted, when you’re exhausted — they do not want to have to guard themselves, so they surround themselves with people they trust.”
Recently, some staffers have turned on their bosses. Ron Carey, former chief of staff to Rep. Michele Bachmann, penned an opinion piece last week declaring the Minnesota Republican unfit for the presidency. And staffer complaints have ultimately led to the downfalls of lawmakers such as former Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.).
But current and former staffers say those cases are exceptions to the rule.
“There’s essentially no upside to calling out the boss, but plenty of downside,” says Meredith Persily Lamel, a management consultant who works with Congressional offices. “The only upside is being able to sleep at night.”
The unwillingness of staffers to speak up about Members’ bad behavior — violations of ethics rules, sexual harassment, a drinking problem or even just ill temper — is built in to the system. Staff members’ jobs depend on their boss’s viability. When a Member is well-regarded, so is his staff. Conversely, the stain of a scandal often spreads from a lawmaker to his employees.
“In one way or another, we’re all beholden to our bosses,” one Senate staffer says.
And many say a staffer who rats out the boss would find it difficult to land another job.
“That would poison you for employment with anyone else. Period,” another former House staffer says.
Lamel says the threat of retribution harms the institution.
“Staffers who do that responsibly should be thought of highly and given opportunities,” she says. “It’s unfortunate that that’s not the attitude.”
Aides on Capitol Hill are unlikely candidates for turning on the boss. Many make relatively little money. They’re young, ambitious and eager to please their superiors.
One former House staffer describes his decision to buck the system and confront the chief of staff about what he thought were ethics violations by the Member he worked for. The young staffer says that like many of his colleagues, he was living paycheck to paycheck, so the possibility of losing his job was frightening.
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.