Georgia Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux is no stranger to hectic times on the Hill. Before becoming one of the critical votes in the House as her party tries to wrangle both a bipartisan infrastructure bill and a sweeping spending package, she was a legislative staffer in the early 1990s for Oregon Rep. Ron Wyden.
It was a roller coaster for everyone. The House flipped to Republican control for the first time in decades, and many senior aides lost their jobs. But a short time later, her boss won a special election to the Senate, where he still serves.
As the political climate turned “vicious,” Bourdeaux remembers Wyden loudly singing, “Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.” Now that she’s returned to Congress as a lawmaker herself, she complains that divisions are deeper than ever and responsible budgeteering is a thing of the past. But if she learned one thing from her staffer days, it was this: “Even when you think all hope is lost, it’s not really.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Q: What was it like to get started on the Hill around the same time as the “Year of the Woman” in the early ’90s?
A: It was a period of transition, of course. I came in right before Bill Clinton won, and so there was a big transition to Democratic control all of a sudden, after 12 years of Republican control of the presidency. And then in ’94, the Democrats lost the House, after holding it for 40 years. That was a huge shift. So I really saw some of those early tremors that foreshadowed the deep division that we have today.
Q: Things were changing for staffers too — leading up to the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995, as news of Sen. Bob Packwood’s sexual misconduct came to light.
My eyes were less on that kind of thing because I came in as a young woman and just assumed it was always going to be OK. What I saw instead was the rise of Newt Gingrich, and a really vicious type of very personal politics. It just seemed like an oscillation began between the left and the right — this “take no prisoners” approach.
A lot of people trace it back earlier, but for me, a switch flipped in ’94, when the Republicans took over the House, surprising staffers who had worked in that institution their entire lives. You imagine someone who was a lead committee staffer for decades all of a sudden losing their job — completely unexpected to many people. And I just remember it was like a bomb had gone off in the halls, with people huddled around and whispering to each other. Wyden was a subcommittee chair on House Small Business at the time, and so he lost some of his staff during that moment.
But soon after that, he turned around and ran for Senate [when Packwood resigned in disgrace] and made the first Democratic resurgence after the big Republican victory in ’94. I was right in the middle of that. I was there while he ran, and then I worked for him in the Senate.
Q: What was the culture like as you switched chambers?
A: I was very focused on public policy and on the policies I was advocating for. I think there were only two women in Wyden’s office at one time, but as we went over to the Senate, he hired a legislative director, Carole Grunberg, who was a wonderful mentor to me. So there were more women making their way in that world. I had my share of #MeToo moments — but nothing associated with Wyden’s office, absolutely zero. He was as squeaky clean a straight shooter as could possibly be.
Q: You helped draft the language for Wyden’s announcement that he would support same-sex marriage in 1996. How did that unfold behind the scenes?
A: Oh, that was a fabulous moment. He was running for Senate at the time, and the chief of staff came to me and said, “I want you to put together some talking points on gay marriage,” and I was like, “OK, what’s the position?” The chief said, “Well, I really don’t know, but why don’t you put down whatever you think is right.” So I wrote down that marriage is about love and commitment, and I support gay marriage.
Wyden was getting ready to do the interview, and I handed him the talking points. They asked him what he thought about gay marriage, and he’s like, “Marriage is about love and commitment.” He became one of the first members of the Senate to support gay marriage. He was very proud of that stance, and I was proud to have been a part of it.
The chief of staff was a little shocked that he came out that abruptly. A conservative columnist wrote a negative article about it, and the chief left that on my chair the next day. I was never sure exactly what that meant.
Q: What’s changed for staffers on the Hill since those days?
A: The Hill is much more diverse now, so that’s a big change. But another big one is how very partisan it has become. Some of my good friends worked for Republicans when I was first in D.C. Every bill I worked on with Ron Wyden had a Republican co-sponsor.
And every bill we introduced was paid for — we were under [pay-as-you-go rules], and it was always about the trade-offs. Could we afford it? How would we save money? That was just a constant part of the conversation. So it was a big shock to come [back as a lawmaker this year] and find there really isn’t the same budget constraint. I mean, we’re just passing huge bills with no pay-fors whatsoever. You could not have done that back in the ’90s.
Q: What else do you remember about working for Wyden?
A: The headline in the paper when he won the Senate was “Wyden by a Whisker.” The interesting thing about his campaign was that he decided at the end, “You know, I just hate the negative ads, and I’m just going to be positive.” Of course, all the consultants behind the scenes were wringing their hands, “Oh, no. You’ve got to attack.” And he said, “Nope.” The soundtrack of his campaign was “Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.” [Sings.] And he would start off every rally singing that song. He did what he needed to do to be true to himself.
I have another great story about Wyden and perseverance. So I was working on a bill — a demonstration project to try out using foster care money for kinship care. The foster care program usually paid money to help support kids placed with strangers, but not kids placed with grandparents or family members because they didn’t want people to game the system. But that was a huge issue because it’s much more comfortable for a child to go to a familiar family member, and the debate continues to this day. We worked very hard on getting this project into a bill, and we’d gotten it in on the House side, but then we heard it had gotten dropped out of the conference committee report. I told Wyden it was over — the conference committee had adjourned, they had voted it out, and it was over. And he said, “No, it’s not.”
He went and sat in the chairman’s office, the chairman of Ways and Means, and waited until he came back. Then he snagged him — personally, one on one. He sat in his office and got the chairman to put that provision back in the bill. I’ve always remembered that because even when you think all hope is lost, it’s not really. Don’t ever give up, even when you think it’s all over.