‘Oscars for Congress’ catches some delighted staffers unaware

The Congressional Management Foundation event goes virtual

The Congressional Management Foundation announced its awards this month celebrating non-legislative achievement and performance by members of Congress and their staffs.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The Congressional Management Foundation announced its awards this month celebrating non-legislative achievement and performance by members of Congress and their staffs. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted October 14, 2020 at 10:00am

And the winner is … democracy. Or, at least the offices of eight democratically elected members of Congress who demonstrate “that Congress can work.”

The Congressional Management Foundation announced its “Democracy Award” winners this month for work on improving government transparency and fostering innovation on Capitol Hill. Those awards — which the foundation dubs the “Oscars for Congress” — recognize members and staff who aim to make Congress more effective in behind-the-scenes areas like constituent service.

The nonpartisan group has been around since 1977, but the awards are in their third year. The winners are chosen by a selection committee comprised mostly of former members of Congress.

“It’s no secret that a lot of Americans are losing some faith in government, this year because of how America is responding to the coronavirus crisis,” said Bradford Fitch, president and CEO of the foundation. “The Democracy Awards represents a little oasis of effectiveness and of good government in a sea surrounded by, on some levels, dysfunction.”

In years past, the awards were revealed at an in-person soiree with about 150 attendees. During the pandemic, the red carpet was rolled up and organizers held a series of virtual ceremonies for each of the winners. A video of all the reveals was released earlier this month.

Organizers did a bit of sleight of hand to get the winners on teleconferences before announcing they had won.

Staffers for Reps. Kay Granger, R-Texas, and Mark Takano, D-Calif. — when told they had won the “Innovation and Modernization” award — could be seen beaming from their small chat boxes, and at least one person appeared to applaud.

Liz McBride, director of the House Office of Employee Assistance, won the lifetime achievement award for nearly three decades of work providing an “extraordinary volume of direct service to employees.” She was caught totally off guard.

“I am so touched, Brad. You’re not recording this are you?” she said, tearing up after Fitch revealed her as the winner. “I so appreciate the recognition, and I’m shocked by it because I think there’s people who work just as hard as I do.”

One winner, Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, cracked jokes when he was awarded the “Transparency and Accountability” award.

“You all were less than transparent about this,” he said with a half-chuckle after they announced he had won, saying he now felt bad about complaining to staff about how there was no memo on what the call was about. “Now I guess I understand why I was not filled in,” he said.

Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-Pa., and her staff also received the transparency award.

The offices of Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., got awards for “Constituent Service,” recognizing their “outstanding practices or achievements acting as ombudsmen.”

Reps. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., and Donna Shalala, D-Fla., received the “‘Life in Congress’ Workplace Environment” award for enhancing the work-life fit and “professional development of their staffs.”

All the work to edit and compile the video began in June and turned into a summer bonding experience for Fitch and his 14-year-old son, Benjamin, who got a credit as the “Virtual Ceremony Video Technician.”

“You know, some fathers and sons build birdhouses in the backyard,” he said. “In my house, we build PowerPoint presentations and videos in Adobe Premiere suite.”

An in-person celebration is preferable, Fitch said, but some of the lessons learned this year will remain for future years.

The chats with staff who sometimes don’t attend added a “fun and interesting” flavor to the awards, and the former TV journalist (and Roll Call employee) said the organization plans to continue doing more videos ahead of time to play at the ceremony.

That, he said, is part of the spirit of the awards, which go to the whole office, not just the member.

“We recognize that congressional offices, and indeed the work of members of Congress, is not the work of one person,” he said. “It’s the work of many.”