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House staffers stuck in limbo as their bosses fight over speaker

‘We are getting more and more concerned’ about the delay, one says

Kevin McCarthy talks with aides before the start of another failed attempt to elect a speaker on Wednesday.
Kevin McCarthy talks with aides before the start of another failed attempt to elect a speaker on Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Uncertainty swirling around the House speakership has had far-reaching effects for members, their families and, increasingly, staffers transitioning into new roles and beginning the work of making congressional offices run.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s attempts to woo a small group of fierce opponents failed again on Wednesday. The California Republican fell short of the majority threshold needed to secure the speakership, and the House adjourned for the night without a new leader.

The House’s travails are significant not only because it’s the first time in a century that a speaker vote went to multiple ballots. It’s also brought the legislative process to a grinding halt.

“Without an end in sight, we can’t plan for the future,” said one Democratic aide, who requested anonymity to speak frankly. “This delay has hindered our ability to conduct any legislative business. … We can’t introduce bills. We don’t know our committee assignments.”

“Our office was hoping to introduce a bill this week, but we clearly don’t know if that’s possible,” the aide continued. “It’s an awful way to begin a new Congress, and whoever the speaker is, it’s a sign of what the next two years will be like: chaotic and dysfunctional.”

The chaos is especially pronounced for freshman members, many of whom are still in the process of hiring and may have only about half their staff roles filled, according to Brad Fitch, president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to help lawmakers improve their operations.

“For freshman offices, it’s a very harried time of year because you have to go through all the processes of basically setting up a small business,” Fitch said. “It just adds a layer of tension to an already tense moment.” 

One staffer for a freshman Democrat said the delay means their office can’t set up official emails or phone lines. They also can’t order stationery, buy office supplies or get a coffee machine.

Others said they were confused about what work they could begin as they waited for their bosses to become fully fledged lawmakers. According to the traditional order of business in a new Congress, a speaker must be chosen before members are sworn in.

Former Rep. Billy Long did some reminiscing this week, saying he remembered how tough it was to get anything done in the period after being elected but before taking the oath of office, even without any of the current drama.

“When I was a Member-elect a future constituent had a big issue he wanted help with,” the Missouri Republican tweeted. “I wanted to help & asked my future Chief of Staff to lend a hand by contacting the appropriate agency. We were FORBIDDEN & CHASTISED for even thinking I could act as a Congressman until sworn in.”

The speaker void has led to questions without any recent precedent, like how spaces on the Capitol campus could be used while things are still in limbo. 

Rep. Matt Gaetz suggested that McCarthy was a “squatter” in the speaker’s office and called for his eviction from the plush working space.

“What is the basis in law, House rule, or precedent to allow someone who has placed second in three successive speaker elections to occupy the Speaker of the House Office?” the Florida Republican wrote Tuesday night in a letter to the Architect of the Capitol. “How long will he remain there before he is considered a squatter?”

The Architect of the Capitol did not respond when asked if the agency was looking into the complaint.

As the speaker race continued and their bosses sat through round after round of votes, some staffers seemed aimless and lost, while others turned to a task that never goes out of style on Capitol Hill — sounding off on social media. One staffer used a wry joke to describe the state of play.

“No sworn-in members. No committees organized. No floor operations or legislation. Woe betide you all: the House of Representatives is all comms,” tweeted Aaron Fritschner, who runs communications for Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va.

Another Democratic staffer for a member-elect, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said boredom paled in comparison to larger concerns about compensation if the search for a speaker drags on.

“We are getting more and more concerned about whether our pay will go into effect on time and whether these things will delay our benefits, especially for those of us setting up new offices,” the aide said. “It also affects hiring, since a lot of offices are waiting to fully staff up until committee assignments have come out.”

According to Fitch, legally speaking, staffers who work for members are House employees and should continue to be paid as long as the legislative branch is funded. 

Committee staffers, however, have more to worry about.

If the House fails to adopt a rules package by Jan. 13, committees won’t be able to process payroll or student loan repayments for staffers, “since the committee’s authority for the new Congress will not be confirmed,” according to late December guidance issued by the House Administration Committee.

While that date is still more than a week away, observers are already gaming out the possibilities.

“This makes sense: the committees won’t have an employing authority, because absent House rules the committees themselves don’t exist,” Matt Glassman, a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University, tweeted Tuesday. “In this case, it feels like Member offices would be ok, but not committee staff.”

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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