Seen but not heard? Sit-in protesters change the game for staffers

Bosses used to tell Hill aides, ‘If I ever see your name in the newspapers, it better be in the obituaries’

Congressional staffers have lately been challenging the adage that they should be “seen and not heard.”  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Congressional staffers have lately been challenging the adage that they should be “seen and not heard.” (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted July 27, 2022 at 6:22pm

Congressional staffers who staged a sit-in Monday at Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer’s office in protest of stalled climate action went into it preparing for the worst — staffers hardly ever make a scene, let alone like this.

The worst did happen for six of the 17 demonstrators: They were arrested for unlawful entry and “for failing to leave the office after they were told to leave,” according to Capitol Police. 

But their cause picked up some steam during the week, and along the way they shook up some deeply held beliefs about what it means to work on Capitol Hill.

The six protesters arrested Monday are all House staffers, the Capitol Police said. They are Aria Kovalovich and Emma Preston, aides to Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif.; Saul Levin, an aide to Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo.; Rajiv Sicora, an aide to Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y.; Courtney Koelbel, an aide to Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md.; and Philip Bennett, an aide to Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., according to Capitol Police.

Arraignment on the charges was still pending Wednesday in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia.

The unusual demonstration in Schumer’s office coincided with the release of a letter to President Joe Biden signed by 165 Hill staffers and others insisting that the president “do everything in your power” to address the climate crisis. The letter was signed with initials only, because as a spokesperson for the group said, “they know when they step out from behind the cloak of anonymity they risk their jobs and livelihood.”

Yet those who staged the sit-in, particularly the six who were arrested, put themselves in front of the public in a big way. 

Levin called the sit-in an “absolute last resort.” Although the group underwent training, they had no idea what to expect — or if their careers would take a blow because of it. 

“We were transparent with everyone that this has never happened before,” Levin said. “But we decided to say, ‘We’re going to do something unusual because you need to do something unusual.’ …  We felt that it was scarier to be silent in the halls of power during a climate emergency than it was to take on a risk whose bounds we didn’t fully understand.”

Levin even tweeted during the protest: “We’ve also never seen climate catastrophe, so we’re meeting the moment. Follow along as we fight with everything we have to jumpstart climate negotiations.”

At least two lawmakers, Omar and Khanna, tweeted their support. “I stand in solidarity with all of the staffers, including those in my office, who peacefully protested for climate action today,” Khanna wrote. “Protecting our planet is not a radical idea.”

Brad Fitch, president of the Congressional Management Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to enhance Hill operations, said Monday’s protest and the arrests that followed are an unprecedented use of grassroots organizing, especially for a group of people who have unparalleled access to members of Congress.

“Our research shows that it’s not really an influence tool, it’s more of a political statement,” he said of the staffers’ Hill protest. “In terms of actually influencing members of Congress, the research shows that it is much more impactful to work with members, get to know them, build relationships.”

But the sit-in also represents a shift in “assertiveness” among Hill staffers, Fitch said. The traditional notion that staffers are “to be seen and not heard” — an unspoken rule for decades — is completely changing, he added.

“I did an interview around 2000 with a chief of staff that said when he hired new staff he told them, ‘If I ever see your name in the newspapers, it better be in the obituaries … or it will be,’” Fitch said.  

That cultural workplace shift is likely to have major impacts on staffers’ representation of their members’ public image and could even affect relationships among members. 

“If you work for a member of Congress, you are invariably tied to the public pronouncements of that member, the policies that they espouse, and one would assume that you endorse them,” he continued. “Is [a public pronouncement against another lawmaker] going to interfere with the relationship between the senator who’s being protested, and senator who employs the other staffers?” 

The protests came after Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., had halted discussions on a climate spending package earlier this month, citing issues with provisions aimed at making investments in clean energy tax credits. Manchin had said he wanted to scale back gas prices by increasing domestic energy production.

“As people who work inside these buildings, if you think that Biden and Schumer have done everything they can to win Manchin’s support … they have not, actually far from it,” Levin said, before news broke on Wednesday afternoon that the two senators had come to a tentative agreement.

In their letter released Monday, staffers had called on Biden to release a public statement presenting Manchin with two options — pass a slimmed-down "Build Back Better" bill with climate initiatives by the end of July or face another “bold and creative” alternative, such as stripping Manchin of his Senate Energy and Natural Resources chairmanship. 

“This is an absolute emergency, and we want to work together, but since action to meet the scale of the crisis has yet to be delivered, we have no choice but to take matters into our own hands through non-violent direct action,” they wrote. 

Biden has promised throughout the past few weeks that he will use his executive powers to address climate change, calling it an “emergency” and adding that he will “look at it that way.” But Biden has yet to make an official declaration, which environmental advocates say would open the door to more dramatic action.