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Roll Call at 60: How Capitol Hill Staff Have Changed Since 1955

A staff-focused headline from a 1955 Roll Call front page. (Photo courtesy Meredith Dake-O'Conner)
A staff-focused headline from a 1955 Roll Call front page.

Capitol Hill looks quite different than it did 60 years ago, when Roll Call published its first issue.

The demographics have changed: Members of Congress are far more diverse, both in ethnicity and backgrounds. The neighborhood has changed: Capitol Hill has become a highly sought after residential space. And there are the offices — Roll Call documented the construction of the Rayburn and Hart buildings, plus the introduction of computers and the way the Internet changed the fundamental ways an office communicates and conducts business.

One other area has also shifted, albeit subtly and without as much formal groundbreaking: the role, size and expectations of congressional staff.

When Roll Call began publishing in 1955, the front-page stories were dedicated to matters facing Hill staff, with headlines such as, “Hill Workers to Share in $11M Pay Hike” and “Ceiling on Senate Aide Pay Up, House in Doubt,” even touting the Miss Inspiration contest for “Capitol Hill Girls” open to anyone between the ages of 18 and 80 who would send their photos to Roll Call.

Sid Yudain, the founder, envisioned Roll Call as a newspaper primarily for staff. “It just seemed logical to bring everybody together and let the people know who’s who in which office, in the office next door to theirs, in the office down the street,” Yudain said in an interview with Roll Call for the newspaper’s 50th anniversary a decade ago. “I thought we needed to get a more human spirit there, a more human aspect to the thing.”

Today’s Roll Call is still read by staff, but also a much wider audience: members of Congress, lobbyists, Capitol Police, political operatives and advocacy groups. The first two print editions of Roll Call this September — including the signature “Welcome Back Congress” edition — featured six front-page stories: two on presidential politics, two on the Pope’s visit and two on the business facing the House. One of the papal stories featured lobbyists, but none of the front-page stories prominently featured staffers.

Over the years, Roll Call has shifted from reporting on staff-specific news to focusing on news that matters to staffers. There are still many staff-specific front-page stories: troubles plaguing the Capitol Police, overtime provisions, the Family and Medical Leave Act and even the detailed options for new mothers on pumping breast milk while working on Capitol Hill. Plenty of Roll Call content — including the Hill Navigator column and the Hill Blotter reporting team of Hannah Hess and Bridget Bowman — features stories specific to Capitol Hill staff, but staff coverage is no longer the paper’s primary purpose. Congressional staff coverage is folded in with details about the Iran deal, Donald Trump rallies and special elections.

But another shift in staff coverage may stem from the changing role of Capitol Hill staff themselves.

In 1955, the congressional staff was considerably smaller and far more concentrated in the hands of the leadership and committee chairmen, said John Lawrence, a longtime Capitol Hill staffer and former chief of staff to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. In the 1970s, House Administration Chairman Wayne Hays of Ohio provided far more financial resources to individual members, many from marginal districts and who feared a competitive re-election.

The increase brought in more staff with greater degrees of expertise, allowing individual members to operate independently of leadership, committee chairmen and the executive branch. This helped fuel a decentralization of some elements of control in the House, which Lawrence said is often blamed for a reduced level of discipline and inefficiency.

“It’s a long-standing debate among congressional scholars,” Lawrence said.

The recent freeze in congressional budgets has hurt offices’ ability to retain the senior staff whose specialization is necessary for such independence. One veteran House staffer called the move by the GOP Congress counterproductive, since it forces the House to rely further on the executive branch, rather than having the staff expertise within an individual office or at the committee level.

Expectations of congressional staff have also changed. Bradford Fitch, president of the Congressional Management Foundation and a former Hill staffer, pointed to the 1970s to pinpoint the beginning of the specialization of Hill staff. Fitch gave the example of a press secretary, a rare position before 1980 that is commonplace now.

“The age of television required you to have a press secretary,” he said. The original press secretaries had worked as reporters before coming to Capitol Hill, though Fitch noted that is no longer the case. Many universities now offer communications training, preparing recent college graduates for press secretary roles with fewer years of experience and without an obligation to have worked as a reporter beforehand.

“When press secretaries don’t come from the ranks of being a reporter, they have less of an understanding about walking in their shoes,” Fitch said. “This has led to a new barrier built up between the media that covers Washington and the press secretaries.”

Donald Wolfensberger, a former GOP staffer and now a resident scholar with the Bipartisan Policy Center, said he believes members of Congress now place a premium on staffer-messaging skills in all positions, not just the press secretary. “It’s a sign of the times,” said the former Rules Committee director and Capitol Hill staffer from 1969 to 1997. “Both parties are looking to the next election and things on the Hill are now geared toward electoral outcomes. Members are looking for people that are clever and can get the word out there to say something different, but are still in line with the party’s campaign message.”

There are plenty of positive changes among congressional staff that benefit both the members and constituents: Staff are more diverse, more highly educated and many more women hold leadership roles than in previous years.

“Capitol Hill staff had always been educated, as compared to the private sector, and that marker is continuing to grow as well,” Fitch said. “My first chief of staff [in the 1980s] had a high school diploma, and he was one of the best political operatives I ever worked with.”

Even as the role of staff continues to evolve, there will still be a place for staff-specific stories in the pages of Roll Call. It may not have the 1950s-era focus it once did, but as long as there are members of Congress legislating in D.C., there will be eager and able staffers needed. And anything on and around Capitol Hill that affects staff will still be part of Roll Call’s reporting beat, even 60 years later.


Roll Call Turns 60

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