So Over the Hill: Staffers Reflect Back
“As a congressional staffer, you don’t really know what you’re talking about. You’re better off just admitting it.” What better way to glean wisdom of the changing Capitol Hill dynamics than by talking to some of the long-serving staffers? Hill Navigator knows all too well that staffers have reputations to protect and bosses to defend; they can’t be giving candid advice willy-nilly to whomever comes asking. So this is why we’re asking people who have left Capitol Hill. The staff ID is turned in, the BlackBerry unplugged and their on-the-record, lightly edited thoughts follow.
First up, Daniel Harsha , an eight-year Capitol Hill veteran who is moving to Boston to work at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation as the associate director for communications.
Q. Your Capitol Hill experience?
I’ve been on the Hill for eight years. I started out on the Hill as an intern for Howard Berman, and was lucky enough to get hired by him. Note to interns: learn to crank out that constituent mail — it’ll get you hired in no time. After being promoted to legislative assistant, I ultimately transitioned to the House Foreign Affairs Committee after Berman was named chairman. I stayed on to work for Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., when he became ranking member of the committee.
Q. In your time on the Hill, what has changed the most?
Lawmakers have become less interested in making laws. I started on the Hill when the GOP previously controlled the House, and while I don’t exactly get all misty eyed about the Hastert/DeLay years, they at least tried to get things done. Now we define success in the House by either not shutting down the government or defaulting on our debt.
I look at all those tea partyers elected in the last few years and think even though we don’t share the same political philosophy, don’t you want to actually do something with your time in Washington? The second question I ask myself about the tea partyers is whether they’ve learned how many votes it takes to pass a bill through the House? That ought to be the first thing covered at the new member orientation every Congress.
Q. What’s the best part of leaving the Hill?
Turning in my BlackBerry. Really, outside of government, who uses those things? That and no longer having someone try to outlaw the employer contribution to my health care because it makes a good campaign issue. I won’t miss that kind of poisonous and disingenuous political grandstanding aimed squarely at underpaid and overworked congressional staff.
Q. What will you miss the most?
Walking onto the floor of the House during debate or votes. No matter how many times I walk into the chamber, it still feels so electrifying. A bit corny admittedly, but there’s a reason why you choose to work on the Hill. That and the great colleagues of course. Republican or Democrat, working on the Hill means you’re surrounded by bright and energetic people who want to make America a better place. Try finding that at an investment bank.
Q. What you know now that you wish you’d known then?
As a congressional staffer, you don’t really know what you’re talking about. You’re better off just admitting it. If you’re a 23-year -old health care LA, don’t pass yourself off as a Medicare expert. People will see right through you. Rather, I see the willingness to ask insightful and thoughtful questions as a sign of professional maturity — not your ability to regurgitate talking points from leadership. You’re better off expressing your interest and passion for an issue by constantly learning and asking questions, not feeding your over-inflated ego by passing yourself off as some vaunted Hill expert. If I’m in a briefing with you, I will call you out in front of your colleagues. It will not be amusing — to you.
I’ve also worked on the Hill under both Democratic and Republican-controlled administrations. When you’re getting a briefing from the executive branch, don’t lose sight of the fact that whoever is briefing you, a lowly Hill staffer, isn’t exactly Karl Rove or Valerie Jarrett. These are not the folks whispering advice in the president’s ear. Most likely they are nonpartisan civil servants who’ve served under administrations controlled by both parties. Don’t be a shmuck to them. They will remember. Ultimately, they control whatever information you, the Hill staffer, are ultimately seeking. That’s when that don’t-be-a-shmuck rule really comes into play.
Q. If you had to do it again, what would you do differently this time?
Be more assertive. I’m sure folks who know me would scoff at the idea that I could be any louder or pushier. What I’m talking about is being more assertive when it comes to things like salary, issue areas and the like. If you’re not grabbing for your slice of the pie, someone else will. If you’re too shy to ask for a raise, chances are your colleagues aren’t.
Q. What’s the “best kept secret” on Capitol Hill?
The Rayburn cafeteria has become the de facto lobbying headquarters for a crazy Iranian cult only recently taken off of the terrorist list. I know this because they used to follow me after I finished lunch into the men’s room to swear they were not terrorists.
Q. Ten years from now, how do you think Capitol Hill will be different? While I share the concerns that the Hill will become even more partisan and that members will become increasingly burdened by the incessant demand to fundraise, I also worry that the staff will become hollowed out in the future. From being booted off of the federal employee health benefit plan to constant salary cuts, not to mention the employer health care contribution charade, I worry that smart people won’t be attracted to the Hill. In my nightmare scenario, in 10 years most staff will just be young campaign adjuncts with little knowledge or care about the issues — it’ll just be an extension of the DNC and RNC. It’s ironic, because the result will just be an unchecked executive branch.
Know someone who has recently left the Hill who may have wisdom to share? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.