What Working in Congress Means to Staff | Commentary

Posted October 29, 2013 at 1:35pm

One of the advantages of my job at the Congressional Management Foundation — a nonpartisan nonprofit that works closely with Congress on operational issues — is our unique window into the institution.

A major example of this is the research project the CMF conducted with the Society for Human Resource Management, culminating in the report “Life in Congress: Job Satisfaction in the U.S. House and Senate Staff.” The report, which was released last month, was based on a survey of more than 1,400 staffers in D.C. and district/state offices — one of the largest studies of its kind. The study included a lot of data about what job aspects staff were satisfied with and what needed improvement.

There was a human element as well. This became clear to me when a research assistant asked if I had read the comments to the open-ended questions. I had not, so I asked for a printout. His reply? “I can’t. … There are 700 of them!”

In our survey we asked a question that elicited an unexpected and amazing response: “What does working in Congress mean to you?”

What I saw, and what you’ll see below and read in the full report (with dozens of quotes from staff), is an astonishing view of public service — a dedicated workforce committed to their constituents, their states and their members of Congress. There was also a dose of complaints, but the overwhelming majority of the comments were inspiring. Here is some of what we heard.

Staff feel their work is meaningful.

“I enjoy working to create change from within the system. Though the public sentiment about working in Congress is low at this time, I think it gives my life purpose and relevance.”

“I have a large role in shaping policy. It’s tough work but I think what I’m doing is important and I enjoy it.”

Staff find personal satisfaction in their job.

“It is an opportunity to improve my personal professional skills every day. I regularly have opportunities to challenge myself and participate in work that I feel is meaningful. I leave work with a sense of accomplishment that I didn’t have when working in the private sector.”

“This opportunity has been life changing. I am very satisfied with my role, how it serves this country.”

Staff are sometimes frustrated with public sentiment against Congress.

“I love being part of the public process and feel extremely loyal to my boss and his vision. However, I feel like the public doesn’t understand or appreciate what I do, which I find increasingly frustrating.”

“Compensation and benefits are not enough when I can return to the private sector, make significantly more, and don’t receive daily doses of public hatred.”

By far, the dominant sentiment communicated to us in the survey was this:

Staff have an unusual commitment to the concept of public service.

“For three generations, my family has had a strong Capitol Hill legacy. I am honored to follow in those footsteps.”

“Serving the American public is an amazing honor. Working in Congress has allowed me to personally assist thousands of constituents.”

“It is a privilege to have the opportunity to be a public servant, provide assistance to a member of Congress, and hopefully, make a positive difference in the district and in the country.”

I was thinking of these comments after completing a recent interview with a cable news network, which was doing a story on health care benefits for members of Congress and their staffs. The conversation continued between the reporter and the TV anchor on air. When the reporter noted that under an Office of Personnel Management rule, staff would continue to receive an employer contribution for their health care insurance (sometimes called a “subsidy”), the anchor replied, “Makes me hate them even more.”

Looking at the comments from congressional staff, does this look like a workforce deserving of our hatred, or one that is worthy of our admiration, support and gratitude?

Bradford Fitch is president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation and a former congressional staffer.