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.
“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.
Technically, though, all staffers are legally bound to report corrupt behavior when they see it. The Code of Ethics for Government Service, which Congress adopted in 1958, requires all government employees to speak up if they see corruption.
The problem is that it’s never enforced. And that’s probably a good thing for many Congressional staffers, who might unwittingly violate that statute’s command: “Put loyalty to the highest moral principles and to country above loyalty to Government persons, party, or department.”
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.