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Outsiders Choose Hill Professionals

File Photo
"Mr. Outsider" Rep. Billy Long (above) hired Joe Lillis as his chief of staff. Lillis has been legislative director to Rep. Lynn Westmoreland since 2005, and before that, he worked for former Rep. Mac Collins and former Sen. Gordon Smith.

Asked recently whether he had taken leadership’s recommendations in hiring his new chief, Jonathan Blyth, West pointed to the former Hill and executive branch staffer and said, “You’re looking at him.”

Besides the chiefs with Hill experience, there are at least 11 aides who have worked on the national political scene, either for the national parties, the executive branch or a federal agency. 

That list includes Karen Czarnecki, chief of staff to Rep. Mike Kelly, the outspoken Pennsylvania Republican who has quickly made a name through national media interviews as the outsider du jour of the new class of Republicans.

Most recently an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, Czarnecki has toiled inside the Beltway for two decades, including a stint as senior adviser to President George W. Bush’s secretary of Labor, Elaine Chao.

Kelly said Wednesday, surrounded in his office by family, that he hired someone who understands Washington because the city is completely new to him.

“You can’t wait six months to find out whether the chief of staff has the stuff to get the job done,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anything different working in this office as working in my former position in a car dealer. I would never in my business hire someone who doesn’t have any background.”

For this new batch of chiefs, a Washington background sometimes extends from the Capitol to K Street. Seventeen new chiefs of staff have passed through the revolving door between lobbying and government work, according to a database maintained by the Center for Responsive Politics. One more new chief was a lobbyist but has no government experience. 

That comes to a total of at least 72 chiefs to new Members with established inside-the-Beltway résumés.

That number rankled Mark Meckler, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, who said hiring insiders gives the wrong impression from a crowd that asserted it would change the way Washington works. He said experience is necessary on any staff, but the chief pick should send a message to the political base.

“When you send the message that, ‘Hey, my top guy is a lobbyist or my top guy has spent the last 20 years here in D.C.’ ... I think that’s a problem,” Meckler said. “They’re disconnected from the people in the state. These folks live and breathe D.C., and that’s what’s important to them.”

Dave Levinthal, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, said hiring a former lobbyist can be particularly troublesome because of the potential for a clash between allegiances.

“Where you get into a sticky situation is if a prominent member of your staff used to work for a particular lobby shop or a particular special interest group that all of a sudden is doing business before your committee or is lobbying you to take particular action on a bill,” he said. “This does happen a lot, and there is, at the very least, potential for conflict of interest.”

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