Opinion

The shutdown plods on. Here’s what Hill staffers can do

It could be worse. You could be furloughed. But let’s face it: working at the Capitol right now is a drag

Members of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association rally against the shutdown” in front of the Capitol. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

OPINION — Two months into the government shutdown, and it’s become clear to congressional staff: You are among those paying a high price for political intransigence. While not as challenging as the situation faced by 800,000 furloughed employees, being the ones those people are looking to for hope is not an insignificant burden.

Working for a member of Congress can be a vicarious existence. Good staffers are an extension of their boss and allow members to reach their constituents more effectively. As government employees, you have a natural empathy for those furloughed and for constituents whose lives have been upended by this.

Caseworkers, normally hard at work in district offices helping solve problems, can only tell desperate constituents to wait until certain agencies and departments reopen. The youngest staffers in the D.C. offices are answering calls from people angrier than usual. Letters and emails likely contain language more colorful and pointed than usual.

Bottom line: Right now, working on Capitol Hill is a drag, regardless of your political views.

This too shall pass. Perhaps your biggest contribution can be to ensure it never happens again.

During my nearly 24 years working on Capitol Hill, I held just about every position possible. I answered phones, first as a legislative assistant and then as a legislative director. I spoke to media as a press secretary. I served as a chief of staff in both the House and the Senate, and as staff director for the House Committee on Small Business. I know that when it comes to listening and serving the constituents, it is staffers who are on the front lines. And I know how thankless a job it can seem, especially when it feels like the light at the end of the tunnel is the train that’s heading your way.

But I also know that people who work on the Hill take enormous pride in their service to others and achieve a wonderful sense of fulfillment when helping a constituent or passing a law. The more you immerse yourself into the institution of Congress, and the more you learn of its history and procedures, the more effective you are. You can drive change by helping your boss be an advocate for reform. And there is almost no part of Congress that doesn’t need reforming.

Here are a few common-sense reforms: Make continuing resolutions automatic so no one can use the threat of a government shutdown as political blackmail. Establish biennial budgeting. Extend the fiscal year to Jan. 1. Restore the authorization process that gives Congress its oversight power. Create a more transparent and honest process for letting members direct federal spending.

Pick one of these, or the dozens of other reform proposals, and then become an expert and champion the cause.

The day the 116th Congress formed, the House voted to create a Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. It was an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote and shows that there is an appetite for reform among the rank and file. Get your boss to join that new committee.

Your job matters to the people in this country because without you, Congress doesn’t work. Never forget that you, too, swore an oath of service the day you were hired. You have the influence with your boss to help strengthen the legislative institutions that are closest to the people and form the foundation of our constitutional system of government.

Do your job to the best of your ability, and your boss will be thankful, constituents will be better served, and your nation will be grateful to put an end to government shutdowns.

Mark Strand is the president of the Congressional Institute, a nonprofit organization that examines the operations of Congress and provides guidance to members, congressional staff, and the American public on understanding how Congress works and how it can work better. He spent nearly 24 years on Capitol Hill in both the House and the Senate, most recently serving as chief of staff to Republican Jim Talent.

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