The harrowing images from Jan. 6 at the Capitol are ones that will forever be burned in the memories of those of us who have made a career here in Washington, D.C. Watching members of the House and Senate return to the building that same night to finish their business will be equally memorable.
But how were they able to get back to business so quickly? The answer is the constant and unsung heroes who always come through to save the day — staffers. On a daily basis, scurrying beneath the nine-million-pound iron dome are the equivalent of a small city of individuals — some political, many not — who are usually underpaid, underappreciated and often unseen to the public at large when things like a siege on the Capitol plays out on live TV.
I started my career in D.C. working for Sen. Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz., and later returned to the work for Bob Menendez, D-N.J., as his last chief of staff in the House and his first in the Senate. When I started, I was in awe of having a badge and walking the halls of Congress. It was easy to be star-struck seeing senators, royalty and the occasional Hollywood actor walking the halls. Over the years you start to feel more comfortable in the building’s magnificence, but the significance of the dome and what we do under it always remains. For those who work on the Hill, it serves as our livelihood, a place we spend way too many hours stressing, laughing and making lifelong relationships.
Watching the place that I called home for so many years desecrated as it was last week, I could not help but think of the personal office staff, committee staff, the cafeteria staff, the press gallery staff, the printing office workers, those in the office of the Architect of the Capitol and thousands of others who were put in harm’s way for simply doing their jobs and trying to help the country run.
Though bits and pieces have been reported out, we need to give more attention, praise and thanks to the staffers and journalists who put themselves in harm’s way to film, report and protect as insurgents harassed them, stole and damaged their equipment, and carved “murder the media” on a Capitol door. Let’s not forget the aides who were cognizant enough to grab and protect the Electoral College vote certificates as lawmakers were being evacuated and escorted to safe locations.
As we watched, shaken by images of clearly stunned members following law enforcement orders to take cover, many staffers were alone hiding under desks and barricading themselves in offices, unsure of what they would face when the noises in the halls crashed through. They, too, had families and friends worried whether they were safe and if they would be coming home that evening.
I have worked in some pretty stressful situations on Capitol Hill, and had some tight deadlines, but the many staffers who managed to write brilliant and inspiring last-minute floor speeches for their bosses amid the chaos on Jan. 6 showed just how special the people of the Hill can be. While we were applauding the members of Congress who purposefully returned to the floor to perform their duties, it was the powerful words they read that restored confidence in our legislative branch and assured Americans that our democracy and ability to come together was more resilient than we have given it credit for lately.
Our elected officials are the face of our democracy, but their staff are the blood and bones. They and their families deserve the nation’s gratitude for their courage last week.
Ivan Zapien is a partner at global law firm Hogan Lovells, where he leads the government relations and public affairs practice. He is a former chief of staff to New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez and was vice president of federal government relations for Walmart.