Congressional Staffers: Perception, Reality and a Desperate Request

A few weeks ago I was in an airport waiting for a flight, just watching the hustle and bustle of people moving from one gate to the next. As I sipped my coffee a friendly gentleman sitting opposite of me struck up a conversation. Obligatory airport small-talk always begins with, “Where are you off to?” or, “Where are you coming from?” But after that, he asked, “What do you do?” It is fairly common to get that question within what is known as the Capitol Beltway; this is an often-heard small-talk go-to question, and knowing what a person does can tell you a lot about how to navigate the conversation: In Washington, working for a Member of Congress is commonplace and, in some circles, a coveted position—most people living in the D.C. area value having Capitol Hill experience, since much of what happens here is dramatically affected by the what goes on in Congress.

Outside the Beltway, however, the job isn’t considered so glamorous. Back home—or in airports, for that matter—when I say that I work for a Member of Congress, people often give a look of shock and disgust, immediately followed by an incredulous, “Why?”

It is safe to say that media portrays Congress as an ineffective, inefficient, and incompetent organization crippled by partisan gridlock. The perception held by many “outside the beltway” is that, when not debating and bickering over hot-button bills related to immigration or health care, those that work in Congress just sit around in expensive suits, twiddling thumbs and collecting fat government paychecks funded by your tax dollars. (Spoiler alert: not true.)

In reality, Members of Congress and their staff often work more than the average 40 hours per week. When “in session” (when Members are in Washington, D.C., rather than back in their home states), Congressional representatives are running from meetings to hearings and then back again, with at least two trips over to the Capitol each day to vote on pending legislation. And guess who is with them every step of the way, making sure that the boss has the most up-to-date information and is adequately prepared for their next meeting? That’s right, you guessed it: staff.

There is a huge disconnect between what we actually do on Capitol Hill and what the public perceives. Staff will research issues; meet with constituent groups, businesses and citizens from the district; and representatives from federal agencies in order to get an idea of the impact of potential legislation, where there might be problems that new legislation, and how to fix them. The work that we do is colored by the question of, “How will this affect my district and my constituents? What will they think of this?” Yet when it comes to constituents’ opinions, staff is made to feel as if the work that we do is never enough. We can work long hours for low pay, as many Members and their staffs often do, and yet some members of the public will always demand everything be fixed right away, and only by the solutions they are suggesting.

Ultimately many Hill staffers and Members are proud of the work we do, and we’re proud to represent our districts and our communities. But it’s often discouraging to have the work we do dismissed with disgust by friends and family back home who are fed up with the perceived stagnation of our political system.

Whether Christian or not, most staffers believe they are trying to use their God-given talents and interests to make this country better. We understand constituents’ concerns and frustrations, and empathize—we get fed up with the process, too! But we are not perfect by any means and the political world is not an easy one to navigate.

As such, I humbly ask that, before voicing your frustration and displeasure with our work, please make an effort to remember that Congressional staffers are humans, too, made in the image of God. Instead of put-downs and disparagement, consider saying a word of encouragement, and pray for much wisdom and discernment for the men and women who serve their country in Congress.

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  • Kathy Johnson is a politically moderate Midwesterner who now calls DC home and works in the U.S. House of Representatives. She speaks fluent sarcasm (thanks mom!) and most days needs two things to function: grace and coffee.

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