For many Capitol Hill staffers, the trauma of Jan. 6 has never left
Toxic work environment affects not just members but their aides too
Let me first preface this by stating that I don’t speak for all congressional staffers. I am one of thousands of hard-working individuals who serve members of Congress and the Capitol daily. Yet I chose to write this piece to provide my perspective of how things have been in Congress one year after the Jan. 6 insurrection. In my over six years of working for Congress, nothing truly compares to the abnormality of this past year.
On Jan. 6th, 2021, I was working from my apartment in the Navy Yard neighborhood of Washington, approximately a mile away from the Capitol. Many congressional staffers were working from home due to the ongoing threat of COVID-19, but some were on the Hill to assist their bosses during the certification of the Electoral College vote. Four of my colleagues were in the office that day, as well as friends who worked for other members across the Capitol complex. As the violent mob attacked the Capitol, I watched on TV — in fear for my co-workers, my boss and my friends. I frankly didn’t know what to do and spent most of that afternoon calling and texting people to see if they were OK. I felt helpless to see the place where I work, the building that represents our nation’s democracy, invaded and destroyed by people spoon-fed lies by the outgoing president and his allies.
Jan. 6 was just the start of what became a very frustrating time to be a congressional staffer. Following the attack, the Capitol transformed from a freely accessible public building into a military base, as thousands of National Guard troops set up a perimeter and fortified the complex. At one point, there were more National Guard troops at the Capitol than soldiers in Afghanistan. These troops patrolled the grounds of the Capitol for the next four months. To me, the militarization of my workplace was heartbreaking to see. Before, constituents and advocates would walk the halls; now, it was armed troops.
Many of my friends and colleagues experienced trauma from that day, especially nonwhite staffers. Having a mostly white mob trying to “stop the steal” and “take their country back” was the accumulation of roughly five years of racist and toxic politics that came from the previous president’s actions. It was already hard for staffers of color to work on the Hill, but for many, this was the final straw. Over the following months, many left their jobs. People who pursued a path of public service wanting to serve their country and help make a difference were forced to leave due to an increasingly difficult working environment.
Even when the fences came down and the troops left, the insurrection still hovered over the Capitol. It wasn’t made easier knowing that some members of Congress continued to push the false conspiracy theories of the last presidential election, or even downplayed the seriousness of the attack itself. Dozens of people were seriously injured that day, and some were killed in the name of a lie. The mental scars are still felt by many who work here, made worse by some members’ hostile attacks on their fellow colleagues. The racist, xenophobic and hateful actions that have been reported this past year impacted not only the targeted members, but the staffers who work for them as well.
I remain hopeful that things can get better. I want to do my part to make a more positive environment for my fellow colleagues, but I fear that the toxicity that has plagued our workplace will only continue. I share my thoughts as one of many congressional staffers who do the work we do for the love of our country and for democracy.
Please consider that Congress is not just the elected members, but the staffers and others who don’t serve a political function but who work to ensure the smooth, everyday operation of our democracy. We will continue to do our jobs for the constituents we serve, but we too need support and a safe and healthy work environment.
Brad Korten is a senior policy adviser to a Democratic member of the House and has worked in Congress for the past six years.