Brain drain to Biden administration comes at time of crisis for Capitol Hill

As White House taps respected congressional aides, feelings are mixed for those left behind

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer wave as President Joe Biden’s motorcade departs the Capitol on Inauguration Day. They’re also saying goodbye to key Democratic Hill aides as the administration staffs up.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer wave as President Joe Biden’s motorcade departs the Capitol on Inauguration Day. They’re also saying goodbye to key Democratic Hill aides as the administration staffs up. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 28, 2021 at 6:00am

There’s a Democratic hiring spree going on in Washington, the likes of which haven’t been seen since 2008. 

For some who’ve been around Congress for a while, the current flurry of movement on Capitol Hill — staffers exiting, entering and generally jostling — reminds them of 12 years ago.

“I remember there being a great level of energy and attention, [people] trying to position themselves to work in the Obama administration,” said one longtime congressional aide with Senate and House experience, who asked to remain anonymous to talk freely about job changes.

Others say the mood this year feels more somber and less joyful, as President Joe Biden steals away top talent that the Hill will sorely miss as it confronts deep wounds. 

An incoming administration has roughly 1,200 positions to fill that are subject to Senate confirmation, along with many other political appointments. It’s the first time in 12 years that a Democratic administration will start from scratch as it goes about hiring for those jobs. 

The Hill might play a particularly large role in this hiring cycle, given Biden’s long history as a son of the Senate. A number of former Biden staffers who have made their way around Washington are headed to the administration. It’s similar for some who worked for Harris, like her deputy communications director Meaghan Lynch, who now takes the mic as press secretary at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“There’s always going to be a pull to the executive branch,” said Kristine Simmons, vice president for government affairs at the Partnership for Public Service. 

But some wonder if the brain drain will slow the process of healing a workplace that lacks diversity in its senior ranks and is still reeling from a violent siege.

Starting last year, when the incoming president tapped Reps. Cedric L. Richmond and Marcia L. Fudge to head two of his agencies, emotions on the Hill were mixed, as Democrats fretted over the prospect of an even slimmer majority in the House. “Our loss, their gain” was a common response. At the staff level, similar feelings have swirled as veteran aides depart.

So far, the Hill has lost several high-profile staffers to the administration, including key players in appropriations and both House and Senate leadership offices.

When Biden nominated Shalanda Young to serve as deputy of the Office of Management and Budget, appropriators in Congress cheered, while also wincing at the loss of a 14-year veteran with deep knowledge of a process that has only gotten more excruciating through stalemates and government shutdowns. She was the first Black woman to serve as the House Appropriations panel’s top aide.

Over at the White House legislative affairs shop, always a logical place for veteran Hill staffers to end up, Shuwanza Goff and Reema Dodin took jobs as deputies, bringing a combined 25 years of experience in the complex and the often infuriating art of getting anything done. Goff was a longtime aide to House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer and the first Black woman to hold the powerful position of floor director, helping set the legislative schedule. Dodin worked for Senate Democratic whip Richard J. Durbin, who praised her in an effusive floor speech last Tuesday.

“This daughter of immigrants will make history as the highest-ranking Palestinian American woman ever to work in the executive branch,” the Illinois Democrat said.

Few people understand how the Senate chamber works better than Dodin, Durbin said, since she literally wrote the book on the subject as co-author of the “Inside Congress” guide. 

In a further sign of respect, Durbin took her as his guest to Biden’s inauguration this month, a rare ticket in a year where a pandemic and heightened security left members of Congress with just a single plus-one. 

The departure is “bittersweet,” said Durbin spokeswoman Emily Hampsten, but “having talented staffers in both branches is good for everybody.” 

Herline Mathieu, president of the Congressional Black Associates, said several members of her group have taken jobs in the administration. 

“To take all their experiences and to go into the administration and share what they’ve learned to bring about positive change is very exciting,” she said. 

Now the challenge will be to keep building ways for staffers of color to advance on the Hill, where top aides have been overwhelmingly white. In the previous Congress, less than 14 percent of high-ranking staff positions were held by people of color, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which advocates diversity in hiring. The group counted chiefs of staff, legislative director and communications directors in lawmakers’ Washington offices.  

While newly elected lawmakers seem to be on track to hire more diverse staff, people of color remain underrepresented, according to the group. The problem is especially stark in the Senate, which last year had less than a handful of Black chiefs of staff, including one who departed along with defeated Alabama Democrat Doug Jones.

Seeing Black staffers move into well-placed roles within the Biden administration has been a good thing, said Kameelah Pointer, president of the Senate Black Legislative Staff Caucus. “But we want those talented individuals to advance in the Senate as well.”

Pointer said her group is working to find ways that will make it easier to strategically place members and get them hired to Senate posts. But “it’s not something that happens overnight [just] because we have a Democratic Congress and a Democratic White House,” she said. 

The disparities of the Capitol as a workplace were thrown into sharp relief on Jan. 6, when supporters of outgoing President Donald Trump stormed the building, some sporting racist symbols or waving Confederate flags. Lawmakers and staff rushed for cover, turning a midweek workday into what felt like a life-or-death situation.  

While the siege itself was devastating, as staffers watched and wondered how such a significant lapse in security could have happened, some said the day only dragged into the open longstanding problems at the Capitol.

“Jan. 6 was the blowup, but this is something that has been brewing for a while,” Mathieu said. “For CBA, I think there is a conversation within that conversation that needs to be dealt with.” 

Groups like the SBLSC have tried to provide members a safe space to talk about the event, but the reckoning needs to be much wider, Pointer said.

“We were traumatized in 2020 with the blatant killing of Black bodies by the police and the devastation that COVID-19 had on the Black community, so the terrorist attack at the Capitol earlier this month just reopened those wounds,” she said. “Nevertheless, we are resilient, and we will continue working diligently to obtain greater representation in the Senate and to end racial injustice in the Black community.”

“The traumas that Black communities around the nation face are the same for Black congressional staffers,” she added. “We are not immune because we wear a certain badge.”