There are a few well-trod career paths for a congressional staffer. Many decide to trade their hard-earned institutional knowledge for fat paychecks on K Street, while others put their experience to use working on some political passion project at an NGO or interest group. Others still leave politics behind entirely, and an increasingly rare few are lifers who never want to leave.
But then there are some staffers who love Congress so much, they had to let it go. They left Congress so they could try to fix it.
“Whether or not Congress is responsive to the people is a core democracy issue,” said Gideon Cohn-Postar, a former House Oversight Committee aide who is now a legislative director at Issue One, which pushes for government transparency. “The huge advantage of leaving Congress was that I actually got to work in a more targeted manner on those issues.”
Working on Oversight meant constantly scrambling to “respond to every crisis,” Cohn-Postar said, leaving little time for what attracted him to the Hill in the first place.
Amid the luminous lobbying shops and star-studded law firms that orbit the Capitol, there is a smaller constellation of think tanks and advocacy groups focused on improving the government and populated with ex-staffers like Cohn-Postar. Some had always wanted to tinker with the legislative branch’s clockwork, though most say their frustration with the grinding gears of Congress set them on this path. They come from across the political spectrum, but on the question of if — and how — Congress can operate better, they tend to agree.
“[Fixing Congress] makes every policy goal across every issue set potentially more attainable, because it increases Congress’ capacity to do it,” said Aubrey Wilson, director of government innovation at POPVOX Foundation.
Like a lot of these legislative branch repair people, Wilson spent some time near the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, informally known as ModCom. Over its four-year run, it produced more than 200 recommendations for improving how the Capitol functions, from upgrading technology to training lawmakers how to be civil. The House Administration Committee created a new Modernization subcommittee last year to continue the work and oversee implementation of the recommendations.
Wilson said she sort of fell into working with ModCom, which had an equal number of Democrats and Republicans who sat intermingled in their hearings instead of being separated by party.
She started on the Hill as a junior staffer for Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Ga., where she first realized how Balkanized Congress was — each member and committee office largely runs itself. Her interest in productivity started to snowball, and she eventually became a key point of contact between House Admin Republicans and ModCom.
“It’s every Hill staffer’s dream to make a difference. I think that’s why so many people work in Congress,” said Wilson. “And in a time where … we’re not necessarily seeing a lot of productive progress, we have seen that in Modernization.”
For J.D. Rackey, it was his fascination with that same Balkanized bureaucracy that led him to become a staffer. An academic with a political science Ph.D. from the University of Oklahoma, Rackey joined ModCom as a congressional fellow to get a closer look at the subject of his research.
“In grad school, I had a professor who always said, ‘Congress is the second most studied institution in the world after the Roman Catholic Church,’” said Rackey, who recently joined the Bipartisan Policy Center as a senior policy analyst after a year at the Sunwater Institute. “I think that’s probably true, and I think there’s a good reason for it. It’s because it’s so complex, and when you think you just figured it out, there’s another wrench in the works. And it’s always evolving and changing, and the work is never really done.”
Now on the outside looking in, Rackey said he’s focused on how Congress, helped along by groups like BPC, can start to change the underlying factors that drive polarization and deadlock. “There’s a lot of coverage of what’s wrong with Congress … [but] often lacking in the conversation [is] a discussion about the incentive structure of why members or staff behave the way that they do.”
Many of these structures lie beyond Congress’ jurisdiction, Rackey noted, like how members engage in hyper-partisan grandstanding to draw media attention (because audiences are drawn to stories with conflict, especially those that confirm what they already thought about a politician), which in turn drives small-dollar donations. But other fixes seem doable, like encouraging bipartisan lawmaking by allowing more than one member to officially introduce a co-written bill.
Even though they are both trying to “fix” Congress at their respective policy shops, Rackey and Cohn-Postar both lamented the underlying metaphor of an irrevocably broken legislative body. “The majority of bills that become law have over 90 percent of minority party support. And I don’t think the public knows that. So it creates this image of this dysfunctional, polarized, contentious place — which it can be at some times — but it is also an institution that is trying really hard to work for the American people,” said Rackey.
“Congress is designed to function, and it functions in some respects very well. It’s just many of those functions no longer match what Congress needs to do,” said Cohn-Postar. “The best way to solve these problems is to lift them away from the normal political battle of Congress — to make them less interesting in a way — and to encourage a solutions model.”
The nature of this work can feel inherently apolitical, meaning it flies under the public’s radar. Democrats and Republicans alike, for example, hate Congress’ lack of a centralized scheduling system that would prevent, or at least mitigate, the widespread prevalence of double-booked hearings — hardly scintillating stuff. But staying out of the political spotlight isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “It’s a very positive, happy experience, which is a big tone shift from the rest of the toxic culture that seems to be taking over the Hill these days,” Wilson said about her time on ModCom.
Wilson points to the House’s new human resources hub for member and committee offices as one success story. “The fact that all staff now have HR resources, best practices, help navigating professional management issues — that’s a huge win.”
Big ideas, small changes
That doesn’t mean there aren’t ideological differences underneath all the talk of reform.
Dan Lips wants to empower Congress in part so it can more effectively reduce the size of the executive government. A former Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs staffer who is now the head of policy at the center-right Foundation for American Innovation, Lips focuses on how Congress could work more closely with the Government Accountability Office to cut waste. “Right now, there are about 5,000 open recommendations from GAO,” said Lips, noting that for every dollar GAO spends, it returns an average of $133. “For members on both sides of the aisle, nonpartisan recommendations coming out of a congressional watchdog agency is a really good starting point for bipartisan legislation to make the government work better and to achieve taxpayer savings.”
And despite ModCom’s spate of successes breeding a palpable sense of optimism — which truly sets these former aides apart from the walking vats of agita who supposedly roam the Hill — some have concerns. Cohn-Postar frets about who’ll “pick up the torch” from retiring Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash, who chaired the select committee. And Rackey worries the problem of congressional dysfunction might be bigger than Congress itself. “While I do believe that there’s a lot the institution can do to tweak incentives internally, ultimately, if we want to see dramatic change in congressional behavior, it’s got to come from some reforms outside the community and also the public starting to reward that kind of behavior,” he said.
Still, one place to start is somewhere they know well — at the staff level. The former aides all agree that Congress needs more staff and to keep experienced hands around for longer. That requires paying them more, most said.
“It’s clear that Congress needs to be stronger to fulfill its constitutional role to both oversee the executive branch and to pass laws in an increasingly complex world,” Lips said. “We’ve been supportive of strengthening and expanding congressional staffing capacity, so that members have the advisers and staffers to be able to manage this.”
While the 2022 appropriations bill boosted staff budgets after decades of stagnation, further big bumps are unlikely in the near future, given House Republicans’ aim of cutting the federal deficit. In the meantime, the ex-staffers said, embracing new technology could help Congress bridge the capacity gap.
Wilson focuses on how Congress can use artificial intelligence to expand its institutional capacity. She recently coauthored a report on how Congress — and other legislatures around the world — are adopting AI to work more efficiently, along with POPVOX Foundation’s founder and executive director, Marci Harris.
Harris jokes that her desire to help Congress improve itself stems from “a personal flaw or obsession” to solve the problems around her. “Almost all of my public service experience [was] trying to fix things,” she said.
During her time working for Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee, Harris saw the steady stream of constituent emails turn into a flood as they began work on the Affordable Care Act. She realized Congress needed to do something to keep up with the pace of technological change. “I kept a list of all the things I wanted to fix, and I just kept bringing it around to everyone internally,” she said. “And at the time, there wasn’t a place to take ideas about how to fix the digital infrastructure of Congress.”
So, she started POPVOX.com in 2010, “back in the days when we thought we could fix everything with a website,” she said with a laugh.