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Outsiders Choose Hill Professionals

New House Members Pick Capitol Hill Veterans to Be Their Chiefs of Staff

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.

Correction Appended

A flashy Southern auctioneer with as much a penchant for cowboy hats as for telling voters that he’s “fed up,” Rep. Billy Long struck electoral gold with his campaign as a bona fide Capitol Hill outsider.

“I may not look the part,” the Missouri Republican said in a campaign ad, cracking a sly smile. “But if you’re fed up with politicians in Washington and their cronies, I would truly appreciate your vote.”

After the election was sealed, Long’s rhetoric didn’t cease. When he came to the Capitol in November for orientation, he announced in a press release, “Mr. Outsider Meets the Insiders.” 

But Long not only met the insiders, he hired one of them as his chief of staff. Joe Lillis has been legislative director to Rep. Lynn Westmoreland since 2005, and before that, he worked for the Georgia Republican’s predecessor, Rep. Mac Collins (R), and former Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.).

Long is not alone in hiring an insider. Many new Representatives shared Long’s campaign disdain for the powers that be in Washington, D.C., but nearly 75 percent of all new House Members opted for an experienced Washington hand as their top staffer.

A Roll Call analysis of new Members’ picks for chief of staff found that of the 96 chiefs, at least 60 have previously worked for a Member of Congress or a committee.

Long declined to comment for this report, but Westmoreland recently recounted giving the inexperienced legislator the advice to hire someone who can guide him through Washington. 

“I said, ‘Billy, you’re not a detail person are you?’ He said, ‘Nope,’” Westmoreland told Roll Call. “I said, ‘If you’re not detail-oriented, you better hire somebody who is detail-oriented.’ The ropes are going to be hard enough for a new Member of Congress to learn. If he has eight people or seven people there who are learning the ropes together, that’s going to be a long ride.”

GOP leadership had nudged new Members to hire experienced staffers, even putting together a list of about 75 potential chiefs of staff, including current and former Capitol Hill staffers and lobbyists.

An early warning about hiring outsiders came when Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) tried to hire a conservative talk-show host as his top aide. He backtracked after inflammatory comments that she had made on the air came to light.

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.”

After hiring former lobbyist Eric Burgeson, whose clients included the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Rep. Robert Dold (R-Ill.) instituted a policy that “my entire staff may not work on matters of substance with former clients, and all substantive inquiries from former clients must be referred to a nonaffiliated staff member for consideration.”

Still, lobbyists can be extremely helpful, bringing a robust Rolodex into the Congressional office, said Brad Fitch of the Congressional Management Foundation, a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to increasing efficiency on the Hill.

And no matter the background, Members need someone who knows how to request a Government Accountability Office report, send franked mail and fill other staff positions, he said.

“Members should avoid the height of hypocrisy but at the same time recognize without seasoned veterans working on your staff, you’re less likely to succeed. That’s the golden rule,” Fitch said. Fear of sending an insider message “fades pretty quickly when you can’t get the mail done.”

That’s not to say all Members opted for a Washington veteran. Twenty-three new chiefs come to the Capitol with no discernible D.C. experience. They range from campaign managers or state legislative chiefs of staff to county party chairmen and former state legislators. There are also a few unusual picks, including a dentist and a mechanical engineer. 

As of press time, Rep. Hansen Clarke (D-Mich.) was the only Member who declined to announce his chief of staff.

Scott Yeldell, newly appointed chief of staff to Rep. Francisco “Quico” Canseco (R-Texas), said his boss hired him to bring “fresh blood” to the staff. Yeldell was Canseco’s campaign manager and has limited national political experience.

“Quico just really felt that what was really important was bringing someone who understood the district. He campaigned on the concept of citizen legislators and bringing in people who are coming in to get a job done and not coming in to have a career,” Yeldell said. “I’m not coming in to make a career out of Washington, necessarily.”

Jackie Kucinich contributed to this report.

Correction: Jan. 7, 2011

The article incorrectly stated that Rep. Ron Kind (Wis.) is a member of the Blue Dog Coalition. He is a member of the New Democrat Coalition.

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