Learning Center Cuts Its Classes

Posted March 16, 2009 at 6:19pm

House offices will no longer be able to send their interns and staff assistants to orientation classes after Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard canceled an agreement with the Congressional Management Foundation.

The CMF has offered classes at the House Learning Center for about eight years, teaching hundreds of new staffers how to answer constituent mail, handle phone calls and work in a Congressional setting. In 2007, the CMF estimated that about 250 House offices sent at least one staffer to a class.

But Beard recently decided to scrap three popular courses: Intern Assistant Orientation, Staff Assistant Orientation and Effective Writing.

As of April 1, they will no longer be offered.

The move will save the CAO about $90,000 a year, spokesman Jeff Ventura said. To make up for any lost training, he said, CAO staff will offer “similar classes— this summer.

“After careful examination of current budgetary spending, the Office of the CAO decided to eliminate these courses and, instead, offer similar training in-house’ conducted by CAO staff rather than by contractors,— he said. “At this time, no other curriculum is being eliminated from the House Learning Center, which currently offers over 40 to 50 other courses per month to House staff.—

Those courses include everything from HTML-Dreamweaver CS3 to Managing Your Emotions in the Workplace. But there’s no introductory course specifically for staff assistants and interns.

CMF President Beverly Bell said the organization offered dozens of classes throughout the year. The nonprofit, nonpartisan group is dedicated to “promoting a more effective Congress,— offering courses, conducting research and providing informational resources.

Private funding, rather than government contracts, pay for some of their work. But Bell said she wasn’t sure that would spill over to the classes they offered at the Learning Center.

“We don’t know,— she said. “I don’t think we would be able to attract outside funding for this.—

Along with the class cuts, Beard is also moving part of the House Learning Center out of its Longworth basement office to make room for the Green the Capitol Office.

Former Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), then the chairman of the House Administration Committee, helped steer the center into the Longworth office in 2002. The state-of-the-art space was intended to be centrally located for easy staff access.

Beard wants the same for his Green the Capitol staff, who plan to work with Congressional offices to make them more energy efficient and environmentally friendly.

“It has been decided that the Green the Capitol Office needs to have a more visible position in the Longworth House Office Building,— Ventura said.

He added that Beard doesn’t anticipate the move will affect any of the remaining training courses, though he said the CAO “will continue to evaluate the efficacy of all courses offered.—

Beard’s decision means offices might have to train new junior staffers themselves — a task that can be time-consuming with the high turnover in such positions.

“I rely on these training resources to help prepare my staff for the demands of their daily work,— said one Democratic chief of staff, who asked to remain anonymous in order not to involve his boss. “This loss means that Members of Congress will have ill-equipped staff to help them represent their constituents in Congress. That can’t be the direction that we are heading. We need more staff training, not less.—

The CMF began the classes in 2000 after the House Chiefs of Staff Association told the group that time spent on training took up a significant amount of office resources.

George McElwee, president of the association, said the classes filled a “void— and members will be eager to see how the CAO replaces them.

“If you look at the whole gamut of Congress, we all have the same issue — whether Republican or Democrat — with training staff,— he said. “We’re just trying to make sure that we’re hiring and training staff that will be with us in the long term, and CMF has proven to do that in other lessons.—

The decision to cancel the courses comes just months after Beard dropped another office tool — the biennial compensation survey. Produced every Congress for more than 20 years, the survey provided offices with information on the average salaries and duties of Congressional staffers.

Beard pulled out of a $100,000 contract with ICF Consulting because of “budgetary concerns,— paying about $25,000 for the questionnaire the company had already completed.

House Administration ranking member Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) called the trend “troubling.—

“Members depend on the valuable services provided by the Congressional Management Foundation at the Learning Center,— he said in a statement. “If budget constraints are causing a precipitous decline in Member services at the CAO, then the CAO must reconsider operational priorities.—