Staffers Aim to ‘Letter’ in Privileged Access

Posted July 30, 2003 at 6:10pm

Capitol Hill’s status symbols have always been more about access to power than designer clothing or expensive cars. And beginning in the 108th Congress, power is measured in part by the letters adorning an ID badge.

On the House side, the designations come in the form of silver, hologrammed stickers affixed to the backs of the cards. In the Senate, the letter or letters are engraved into the identification badge itself.

In either case, letters have become a tangible measurement of a staffer’s importance to his or her boss and, in some cases, the institution.

“A” means the bearer can access an alternate chamber, should the need arise. The “B” marking permits admittance to closed-door security briefings. “E” marks emergency-essential personnel. And “F” allows access to the House floor.

The letters — which are doled out based on staffers’ roles — were highly sought after on the House side. Their desirability was accentuated because floor privileges were restricted earlier this year.

At the beginning of the 108th Congress, then-incoming House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) sharply curtailed the number of staffers allowed on the floor, billing it as part of a broader effort to encourage respect for the chamber. The new restrictions came first in the form of a list of staffers permitted on the floor and later were codified with the stickers and a finite number of floating floor badges.

“When [DeLay] changed that there was a mad rush, a frenzied rush, to get these,” a House aide said. “There was some sort of aura about having all these stickers, at least initially.”

At first, the aide said, there were a lot of “intentional flips,” whereby staffers would deliberately, if discreetly, turn their badges around to display the shiny stickers.

The result was a certain “sticker envy” among Hill staff, the aide said.

But the letters elicited little or no buzz on the Senate side, primarily because the designations do not confer any additional rights or privileges in that chamber. The Senate continues to exclusively use temporary and permanent badges for floor access, and so no F’s were bestowed.

“It doesn’t change anything,” a Senate aide said of the letter system. “Because ours only relate to emergency stuff … they are not sexy at all.”

And they also come with responsibilities many staffers haven’t decided if they like.

“I am [a] designated person who does continuity of operations,” the aide remarked. “If something horrible happens, I go with [the Member]. I can’t decide if that is nice or not.”

The aide described the “interesting collection of people who have them” as a mixture of senior staffers and individuals who serve the institution rather than a specific Member. All have obligations in disaster scenarios — protecting infrastructure, setting up and running an alternate chamber or attending secure briefings.

A committee staffer described the people who hold the E’s, in particular, as “operations-type people.”

For example, if a fire alarm went off in an office building, the individual charged with that system would need to enter the building when other staff are being led out. “If that individual cannot get where he needs to go because he doesn’t have the credentials to do his job,” the staffer said, that’s a problem and that’s what the letter designations were designed to correct.

Although the designations are held by a range of individuals — including Cloakroom staff and technical support teams — they have furthered the perceived separation of leadership staff, who comprise most of the letter-bearers, from everybody else.

A House committee aide or a personal office staffer can obtain a temporary floor pass from the Doorkeepers when his or her boss has legislation on the floor (and committees are assigned a limited number of floating floor badges), but it’s not uncommon for a handful of rank-and-file staff — who once would have followed the Members in — to queue up outside the chamber. A select group of leadership staffers, on the other hand, move freely between the Speaker’s Lobby and the House floor, much like Members.

“Basically the floor stickers are confined to folks who work in leadership who have a direct business need to be on the floor. There’s a lot of people who used to go down there in the past but can’t go there now,” the committee staffer said. “Not a lot of those that have been handed out.”