Floor staffers were a quiet force on Jan. 6. Now they’re getting an award

‘Democracy Awards’ recognize staffers who toiled behind the scenes

Aides arrive with Electoral College ballot boxes on Jan. 6, hours before the House chamber devolved into chaos. This week a nonpartisan foundation paid tribute to floor staffers and their service on that day. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Aides arrive with Electoral College ballot boxes on Jan. 6, hours before the House chamber devolved into chaos. This week a nonpartisan foundation paid tribute to floor staffers and their service on that day. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 18, 2021 at 6:00am

While lawmakers and law enforcement have spoken out about the harrowing events at the Capitol on Jan. 6 and how they survived them, one group remains largely unrecognized — the nonpartisan floor staff of the House and Senate.

The Congressional Management Foundation is seeking to change that, by presenting a special “Democracy Award” to all the unassuming staffers within the two chambers who keep Congress running.

“These institutional staffers rarely are recognized, and most people don’t know what they do,” said Brad Fitch, CEO and president of the foundation. “So we really wanted an opportunity just to shine a light on them, if even for a brief moment.”

Fitch’s nonpartisan group has been around since 1977, and this year marks the fourth for the awards, which the foundation dubs the “Oscars for Congress.” The winners, chosen by a selection committee of mostly former members of Congress, are members and staff working to make the legislative branch more effective behind the scenes.

Fitch said he was reluctant to call out individual floor staffers for security reasons. Instead, the foundation created a blanket award to celebrate them as a group, including legislative clerks, technicians in charge of audio and video, and staffers who work for the Senate and House parliamentarians. 

Many of them went “well beyond the call of duty to keep the government working” as a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol in January — and even without their names on paper, they know who they are, Fitch said.

The other honorees this year hail from eight lawmakers’ offices, selected from a self-nominated pool of nearly 80. House members swept the field, shutting out senators in all four categories — workplace environment, transparency and accountability, innovation and modernization, and constituent services.

When Fitch called to say that his office had won a workplace environment award, Roddy Flynn said it was affirming. He’s chief of staff to Democratic Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon of Pennsylvania.

“You have to send them 30 to 40 pages of stuff about your office and what your practices are," he said of the application process. 

Scanlon’s generous time off and virtual work policies caught the attention of the committee, which commended her office for treating staffers as “individuals to be trusted, not workers to be managed.” The office also lists salary ranges in job postings, Flynn said.

“Now I feel like we can officially say we all work for the best boss in Congress,” he said.

Each category features two winners, one Democrat and one Republican. Arkansas GOP Rep. French Hill is the other workplace environment honoree, praised for prioritizing “professional development, communication, and management processes.”

South Dakota Republican Dusty Johnson’s office takes home an award in the transparency and accountability category.

Johnson, whose at-large district encompasses the whole state, typically holds dozens of constituent meetings a year, but the pandemic got in the way. Staffers put their heads together and created “Drive-Thru Dusty Town Halls,” where constituents could park their cars and talk to Johnson. 

“We had big signs that let people know they can come in and give their congressman a piece of their mind,” Johnson said. “We’d just grab the biggest empty parking lot in any community.”

Maryland Democrat Anthony Brown’s office also gets a nod for transparency and accountability. 

In the innovation and modernization category, the winning Republican is Gus Bilirakis of Florida, and the winning Democrat is Katie Porter of California, who earned praise for her office’s quick pivot to remote work at the beginning of the pandemic.

“There were offices that already had staffers with laptops and already had work-from-home arrangements, and so they were able to quickly transition,” Fitch said.

Nebraska Republican Rep. Don Bacon and Illinois Democratic Rep. Cheri Bustos round out the awards, getting the top spots for constituent services. 

The awards are typically presented at an in-person celebration, but last year the pandemic forced the CMF to announce winners via video. This year, Fitch said the foundation initially hoped to hold the ceremony in September, but rising COVID-19 cases have put it on hold until later in the fall. 

The ceremony delay has given them a little more time to decide on who will win their final annual prizes — lifetime achievement awards for two members of Congress and one staffer. 

“We’re intent on having an in-person event. They’re quite special and quite uplifting,” Fitch said.  “Especially after the last two years that have been very difficult and very challenging for the congressional community, we do look forward to a celebration of the best in Congress.”