House chiefs try bipartisan experiment: Talking to each other

Not everyone in Congress wants to burn it all down, say members of newly restructured staff association

Jonathan Day, left, and Mitchell Rivard, serve as co-chairs of the House Chiefs of Staff Association. The group recently changed its bylaws to require bipartisan leadership. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Jonathan Day, left, and Mitchell Rivard, serve as co-chairs of the House Chiefs of Staff Association. The group recently changed its bylaws to require bipartisan leadership. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 26, 2022 at 5:30am

At first blush, Reps. Joe Wilson and Dan Kildee don’t seem to have much in common. Wilson, a Republican, represents a mostly rural patch of inland South Carolina, while Democrat Kildee’s district of factory towns runs along the Lake Huron waterfront down to the city of Flint, Mich. 

But their chiefs of staff say the two offices are more alike than not. “A lot of the work we do as chiefs helping to run a congressional office for a member, at the end of the day, isn’t really partisan,” said Mitchell Rivard, Kildee’s chief of staff. “Like, you process flag requests every day, you have businesses calling you to help with the SBA, [you have] tours.”

Jonathan Day, Wilson’s chief of staff, was nodding along as Rivard spoke. Despite their partisan differences, the two are close friends. “Democrat [or] Republican, you kind of hang out with your own party,” said Day. “But then you meet somebody that’s a Democrat — they’re the same person as you. They have a little different philosophy, but they’re working 12 to 16 hours a day like you, they’re working seven days a week, they’re getting all the same emails that you’re getting from outside groups.”

That realization — that they have more in common than what separates them — is one of the reasons they decided to run to lead the House Chiefs of Staff Association, together. They won back in September with 256 of the 356 votes cast. It’s the first time the staff organization, which traces its founding back to the “Little Congress” created in 1919, has bipartisan co-chairs heading it.

The group amended its bylaws last year to require a Republican and Democrat to run together to co-lead. The change came in response to two issues that have made life worse for Hill denizens: the pandemic and polarization.

“We’re hoping to get things working again and get people knowing each other and make this thing a little bit of a better place,” Day said.

Polarized bubbles

Chiefs of staff and staff directors play the role of COO and HR director to their boss’s CEO. So, it’s telling that these chiefs are worried that the Capitol’s marble hallways have become far too partisan.

Experienced chiefs lament how intense the polarization is today. Julie Tagen, who runs Rep. Jamie Raskin’s office, started on the Hill in the early ’90s. “We worked across the hall from the Republicans, and we all became such good friends. Every Friday we did happy hour, we went to each other’s birthday parties, stuff like that,” she said.

But after Republicans regained control of the House in 1994, Tagen left and stayed away for 15 years. “When I came back, I mean, it was like night and day — the partisanship was just really, really severe,” she said.

Aaron Schmidt, Rep. Suzan DelBene’s chief of staff, said bipartisan receptions were more common when he started on the Hill 20 years ago. But now? “There’s not a lot of opportunities for Democrats or Republicans to spend any time together,” he said. “It’s very rare for us to even have meetings together.”

Such partisan bubbles make accomplishing anything on the Hill harder, Tagen said. “The way to get our boss’s goals achieved — their legislation — is to have some bipartisan support.”

Rivard and Day agree that well-connected, bipartisan staffers make better staffers. “My day job is to help advance Congressman Kildee’s goals,” said Rivard. “It helps me do my job better when I have relationships across the aisle.”

The co-chairs reached out to every other chief when they ran for the position, asking what they wanted to see from the group. There was huge demand for training and professional development — especially sharing tips on how to handle the many challenges thrown at offices by COVID-19 — and networking events.

The pandemic squelched the kind of informal information-sharing that happens naturally when you bump into someone or grab coffee. Combined with an influx of new chiefs who were promoted or hired in the normal post-election churn, senior staff were hungry for basic professional development and networking. So they’ve held trainings with the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Congressional Management Foundation, along with receptions for chiefs and their spouses on the Hill and at the Irish embassy.  More events are scheduled.

Bipartisan at its core

So far, the pair have gotten high marks from their fellow chiefs, who praised the decision to make the group explicitly, structurally bipartisan. “The last year has been really tough on bipartisan relationships,” said Syd Terry, chief of staff to Illinois Democratic Rep. Jan Schakowsky, speaking to CQ Roll Call on the anniversary of the Jan. 6 attack. “The Trump presidency put a strain on those relationships, at least for me.”

But at one of the group’s networking events, Terry said he spent most of the night connecting with GOP chiefs, many of whom maintained close ties to the last administration. “I was kind of amazed,” he said.

“What I love is that some people are recognizing that this is kind of a problem,” Tagen said. “Because everything is so polarized, I think we imagine these people are just like their bosses in some way, but then you meet them … and you’re like, ‘oh, wow.’”

That phenomena is evident with Day, who is leading the charge to reduce polarization while also working for Wilson, the House member who infamously shouted “you lie” in the middle of Barack Obama’s 2009 joint address to Congress.

All these senior staffers share a belief that Capitol Hill can revive the collegial culture they say once existed. “As many problems as we have, we have one Congress, right?” Rivard said. “This place is actually what we make of it. It is a collective sense of the elected members and staff who choose to be here … and we can all collectively choose to keep going down the path we’re going, or we can say there’s a better path.”

The hope is these small steps can help curb polarization and eventually overcome the political trends driving it: the steady nationalization of American politics, partisan sorting along geographical and cultural lines, and narrowing margins in national elections. Combined, those ingredients form the base for legislative deadlock. And, unable to deliver on their campaign trail promises, politicians turn to demonizing the other side to scare their voters to the polls, creating a vicious cycle.

Still, none of the chiefs CQ Roll Call spoke with said they were deluding themselves into believing that a few more happy hours will change the Capitol overnight.

“We’re not going to change the entire atmosphere around Congress with the House Chiefs of Staff Association,” Rivard said. But: “If we can bring folks together one bill at a time, one event at a time, it hopefully will make a small difference.”

The association’s rank-and-file agreed with that sentiment. “I don’t think the Chief of Staff Association can solve our nation’s political divide, but I do think it’s helping to solve that problem,” Schmidt said. “There are just a lot of challenges right now. The way that you get out of this is that you do bring the people together who do not want to tear it down, do not want to burn it down, and let those people get together and find common ground.”