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Hill leaders get high marks from Hill staffers

But aides aren’t happy about lack of legislative accomplishments, survey finds

Congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell, Charles E. Schumer and Kevin McCarthy received high ratings from Hill staffers in the most recent Capitol Insiders Survey. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times file photo)
Congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell, Charles E. Schumer and Kevin McCarthy received high ratings from Hill staffers in the most recent Capitol Insiders Survey. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times file photo)

As Democrats prepared to take control of the House in 2019, some plotted against Nancy Pelosi, the presumed speaker. Lawmakers like Tim Ryan of Ohio and Seth Moulton of Massachusetts argued that it was time for new blood at the top and a generational shift in the Democratic Party.

Pelosi deftly squelched the revolt and a year’s worth of polling of congressional staffers by CQ Roll Call shows that she has consolidated her power. CQ Roll Call surveyed aides five times in 2019, in January, March, April, September and October, and Pelosi received glowing reviews from Democratic staffers for her job performance.

In October’s Capitol Insiders Survey, for example, 97 percent of Democratic staffers said they approved of her work, up from 88 percent in January.

CQ Roll Call uses a comprehensive database of staffer email addresses to distribute the survey, which typically draws 150-200 responses.

Pelosi has lived up to her billing as a skilled negotiator in the back rooms where important legislation is written, and as an equally adept mediator between the factions within her caucus.

In the face of a whisper campaign that she, now 79 years old, wouldn’t have the energy to do battle with President Donald Trump, her defiance has repeatedly gone viral, from the sarcastic clap she gave Trump at his February State of the Union address when he called for an end to the “politics of revenge” to the photo of her standing and pointing at Trump, at a table full of seated men at the White House, questioning him about his unpopular decision to withdraw U.S. forces from northern Syria.

“The staff realize it would be very hard to replace her,” said Steve Elmendorf, who was chief of staff to former House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt and now runs the lobbying firm Subject Matter.

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Across the board

Of the four party leaders in the House and Senate, Pelosi has posted the highest approval ratings, but her House counterpart, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, and the two top senators, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York, all enjoy the admiration of their respective parties’ staffs.

All saw a downward blip in their approval ratings in September, perhaps a reflection of staffers’ frustration, in returning to Washington after the August recess, that so much routine business remains to be done.

[Hill Democratic aides remain conflicted between Warren and Biden]

Lawmaking, clearly, has given way to messaging in both chambers, while the House has focused on investigations of Trump, and the Senate on confirming Trump’s nominees.

But it is daunting, surely, for staffers to see fiscal 2020 appropriations far from done, a defense authorization still pending and few legislative accomplishments about which to boast.

Early hopes

If its current pace is any indication, this Congress may well turn out to be one of the least — if not the least — productive of modern times. Through Nov. 19, it had seen 68 laws enacted and few that anyone would describe as landmark. Perhaps the most noteworthy was the law extending health care benefits for responders harmed by the cleanup after 9/11.

This belies the fact that most congressional staffers, despite the intense partisanship in Washington and Trump’s combative politics, want to get things done.

[Hill staffers in both parties overwhelmingly believe Trump headed for impeachment]

In January, as the new congressional session began, most aides were pessimistic that they’d be able to accomplish much. But a surprising number were hopeful. A third of Democratic respondents to that month’s Capitol Insiders Survey thought there’d be a deal to rebuild America’s decaying bridges, tunnels, roads and transportation infrastructure. Even more Republicans were hopeful, 41 percent.

About a third of each party thought there was likely to be a deal to legalize the “Dreamers,” immigrants who were brought to the United States illegally as children and whom President Barack Obama sought to give legal status to through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Trump ended that program in 2017; the Supreme Court heard a legal challenge on the termination earlier this month.

Meanwhile, about a fifth of aides thought their bosses could coalesce around broader fixes to the immigration system and to shore up the insurance exchanges established in the 2010 health care law.

Recently, majorities in both parties said they expected Congress to act on gun control by encouraging states to enact red flag laws that allow judges to take guns away from people in mental health crisis.

Of course, none of those things has happened, or appears likely to. But that’s not due to the wishful thinking of congressional staffers.

Ready to compromise

In both the September and October surveys, a majority of Democrats said they’d rather compromise with Republicans and Trump than stonewall in the hope of gaining political advantage.

Likewise, in both of those surveys, an even higher percentage of Republican aides — 68 percent in September and 58 percent in October — said they’d rather compromise than highlight differences with Democrats.

It was much the same earlier in the year. In March, half of the Democrats said they’d like to compromise, compared with 4 in 10 who wanted to stonewall. In April, two-thirds were in the compromise camp and only a quarter ready to stonewall. Republicans, again, were just as enthusiastic about cutting deals.

How could it be then that so little has gotten done? Even if Congress can reach a deal on fiscal 2020 spending in time to avert a shutdown, the gridlock on Capitol Hill is as bad as ever.

Oval Office obstacle

The reason, it seems clear, is that Trump has refused to lead. In his State of the Union address in February, Trump told lawmakers: “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation.”

He’s stuck to that. Trump hasn’t offered guidance on how Republicans should pursue an infrastructure deal. Without his say-so, they’re unwilling to accept legislation that would raise taxes or fees.

On gun control, Trump has threatened to break with Second Amendment purists, but each time he has backed away. Progress on immigration has stalled as Trump has moved to divert military funding to pay for construction of a border wall, in defiance of Congress. Without guidance from Trump, McConnell has given up, almost entirely, on legislation in the Senate, focusing instead on confirming judges and executive branch appointees.

House Democrats have focused on investigating Trump and passing messaging bills they hope will resonate in the 2020 election.

“Go to the Hill now: If you aren’t a member on any of the three or four committees working on impeachment, your staff is bogged down,” said Jeffrey Taylor, who was chief of staff to former Indiana GOP Rep. David M. McIntosh and is now the managing partner of U.S. Government Relations International.

“It’s very confusing and frustrating for those staffers.”

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