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Becoming the Boss: Staffers Have Upper Hand

Working With Members Gives Congressional Staff Experience and Contacts to Help Them Succeed as Candidates

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Rep. Bill Huizenga succeeded retiring Rep. Pete Hoekstra in Michigan’s 2nd district in 2010 after serving as his home-based policy director for six years.

Some Members of Congress get their jobs the old-fashioned way: by apprenticing for them.

Since World War II, the number of seats in Congress occupied by former Congressional staffers has dramatically increased, with many in the positions once held by their former bosses.

In the 112th Congress alone, 81 Members have previously worked as staffers, according to CQ Roll Call’s Politics in America 2012. A survey by Roll Call found that 32 inherited the seats of the Members they once worked for, two more than in the 111th Congress. The roster includes four House freshmen and one first-term Senator.

At least one former staffer — Hawaii Democrat Esther Kia’aina — is vying for a seat in next year’s elections.

Staffers are uniquely prepared and well-positioned to run for Congress for several reasons, according to Paul Herrnson, director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland, College Park. They have immersed themselves in politics for years, which teaches them about constituent issues and gives them valuable connections to lawmakers, staffers, party leaders, consultants and lobbyists. They also learn how to raise money and run successful campaigns.

“It’s who they are,” Herrnson said.

Staffers have the upper hand when a Member retires after years of loyal service and high approval ratings, because they can offer voters the promise of continuity and a smooth transition.

They sometimes struggle, however, when it comes to facing off against local officials with greater name recognition at home, said Christopher Deering, a politics professor at George Washington University. These staffers-turned-candidates may have difficulty shedding the label of the “Washington insider,” especially in times when the Capitol has fallen out of favor.

“The disadvantage of working in Washington is that they’re not always on the ground back home,” Deering said. “But normally, they’re from their bosses’ districts,” which would give them an advantage if they seek office there, he said.

Before World War II, it was more unusual for staffers to work their way up to elected office because there were only a few personal aides on Capitol Hill. 

The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 allowed Members to hire larger staffs. With more staffers getting to know the ins and outs of Congressional life, it became more likely that some of them would want to run for office themselves.

In a 1994 study, Herrnson discovered that from 1978 to 1988, 2.6 percent of non-incumbent candidates came from a strictly staffing background. While it may seem like a small group, Herrnson’s numbers also showed that candidates who ran for office with that background were more likely to beat their opponents in primary and general elections — even against previously elected officials.

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