‘Frontier, and kind of forgotten’ staffers share stories of district office challenges

Inside the Washington bubble, district staffers can sometimes be out of sight, out of mind  

One of the field offices of former Rep. Chris Gibson, R-N.Y., seen in Liberty, N.Y., on Oct. 13, 2015.  (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)
One of the field offices of former Rep. Chris Gibson, R-N.Y., seen in Liberty, N.Y., on Oct. 13, 2015. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 16, 2022 at 5:02pm

Corrected 6:04 p.m. | After Rep. Guy Reschenthaler won his House race in 2019, it quickly became clear that winning was the easy part. The Pennsylvania Republican was elected in a newly drawn district, and setting up offices there was a challenge. 

“We did not have the luxury to receive guidance from an outgoing member or their staff,” said Sarah Youngdahl, Reschenthaler’s district director, during a Wednesday hearing of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. “We would have to rely on our own experience and instincts.”

The people who work in district offices are the backbone of Congress, tirelessly serving constituents as their lawmaker bosses commute back and forth to Washington. If you call your representative with a question about Social Security or veteran’s benefits, a district staffer will be on the other end of the line. They accounted for about 2,961 of the 6,329 staff working in House member offices in 2021, according to a CRS report. But inside the chaotic Washington bubble, those workers across the U.S. can sometimes be out of sight, out of mind.   

Youngdahl was one of three witnesses to tell the committee about the hurdles district staff face, especially in sprawling districts that span many miles. As they set up satellite offices, they don’t have access to the same resources as their D.C. counterparts who work in the heart of the nation’s capital. 

Both Youngdahl and Danielle Radovich Piper, Democratic Rep. Ed Perlmutter’s chief of staff who works out of his Colorado district, have bosses who sit on the committee. So they found themselves in the strange position of speaking to their bosses publicly instead of behind the scenes. That’s a rare thing in Congress, Chairman Derek Kilmer pointed out. 

“Another first for the Modernization Committee,” he said as he introduced the virtual hearing, which was simulcast to viewers on Twitch, the live streaming platform popular among gamers.

The idea was to give district staffers a public forum, however brief, to say how Congress could run better for them.

“District offices sometimes are thought of as the frontier, and kind of forgotten,” said Perlmutter, who cheered and grinned after his chief of staff delivered her opening remarks. He tried to summarize what workers might be thinking: “Why do we get treated like second-class citizens out here in the hinterlands?”

ModCom, as it’s sometimes called, is authorized until the end of this Congress to make recommendations to improve how the House functions, but doesn’t have the power to move individual bills. The panel releases recommendations on a rolling basis and intends to keep doing so until its mission expires. 

According to an October report tracking the 97 recommendations it made last Congress, more than 60 percent of them have either been implemented or are in progress.

Wi-Fi enabled

At the beginning of the pandemic, offices scrambling to go remote sought technology to make it happen. That wasn’t easy in district offices, which are still mostly reliant on wired internet connections because of security concerns. The only wireless internet available to many staffers are hotspots provided by the House. 

“There was a run on equipment for the House,” Piper said. 

In Perlmutter’s office, which took his internship program fully remote, they had to mail interns iPads so they could access House information. “Our staff assistant had to sit out in the hallway of our office, borrow the Wi-Fi from the office suite next door to us for hours-on-end setting up the iPads,” she said. 

Kilmer said during the hearing that there is a pilot project to test out Wi-Fi systems in some district offices to make it more convenient to use devices that don’t have ethernet ports but make sure the networks remain secure.

Getting offices set up with the right tech was a common theme for both witnesses and members. “It literally took us 11 months to get internet,” Vice Chairman William R. Timmons IV said. 

In the last Congress, the committee made a recommendation to develop a practice similar to the Senate where members can get help to negotiate district office leases, but it remains outstanding. Members are required to secure their own leases for district offices before the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) can provide tech and telecom equipment, and because a member can’t start paying some bills until they take office, getting a head start can be difficult. 

George Hadijski, director of congressional programming at the Congressional Management Foundation, told the panel there may be a solution by creating a central fund so a House agency like CAO can get offices ready.

“The incoming member may not be able to access it until Jan. 3, but if the CAO can occupy even a short-term lease and pay for those expenses from a central fund and … get it set up so that the computers, the wiring, the Wi-Fi, all that stuff is ready to go, that might be helpful,” he said. 

Constituent files

Rep. Beth Van Duyne, a freshman member of the panel, said her predecessor didn’t share his casework files with her, making it difficult to start providing the services her constituents expected. 

Right now, the system is very deregulated, with each outgoing member deciding whether to pass on casework, and it’s an area that’s ripe for new rules, Hadijski said.  

“It might be helpful to look at some kind of standard process that everybody adheres to,” he said. “You’re not talking about a partisan issue, you’re talking something that’s about helping constituents.” 

Van Duyne, a Texas Republican, also suggested creating a handbook for new members listing the programs and services a district office can provide. Kilmer seconded that, pointing out that he had been in office for a couple of years before he learned of a pinning ceremony for Vietnam veterans. 

Rep. Nikema Williams commiserated, saying she also was experiencing “freshman office woes.” Her case was especially unique because she took the seat that belonged to Rep. John R. Lewis, who died in office.

Williams said she was told that when a member dies in office, typically the member’s wife can sign off to share the case files. 

“But Ms. Lillian passed away before Mr. Lewis did, so they said that I was in a unique situation,” she said of Lewis’ late wife Lillian Miles. “I started from scratch, zero, nothing, because staff were not allowed to transfer information over.” 

Coming up with a way to ease that transition is crucial, the Georgia Democrat said, so lawmakers can do one of their most important jobs — helping their constituents.  

“This information shouldn’t belong to a member, it should belong to the district,” she said. “We’re doing work for people here, not for my own benefit.” 

This report was corrected to reflect that Rep. Ed Perlmutter’s office internship program was the one that distributed iPads, and to correct the spelling of Danielle Radovich Piper’s name.