What happens in congressional offices when the boss is gone?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Aug. 26 2009 6:04 PM

Recess in Name Only

What happens in congressional offices when the boss is gone?

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At the same time, staffs shrink. Although a typical House office might have 11 people the rest of the year, it might dwindle to eight or four during August recess, when the member returns to his or her district. A Senate staff of 30 might get cut in half. Sometimes any staff whatsoever is hard to find. When I stopped by Tuesday, the office staff of Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz consisted entirely of two interns. One was huddled in a fleece, writing a letter to a constituent about immigration reform. The other was nowhere in sight but did, I was told, exist. When I peeked into the office of Illinois Rep. Mark Steven Kirk, the front office was empty.

Where do the staffers go? Vacation, usually. Some offices have a rule that you can take vacation only during recess. Other staffers travel on congressional delegations, either within the country or abroad (although ethics rules make such trips less common).

Some shops, however, remain full steam. I dropped in on the office of Rep. Yvette Clarke of New York to find things bustling. When I told the staff I wanted to cover the August slowdown, one of them said, "You picked the wrong time to write that!" They were working full days, he said, till 7 or 8 p.m. If I were expecting floor hockey and ping-pong tournaments, another said, "You should try Cannon." (The Cannon House Office Building, that is.)

The activity level of an office during recess depends on a mix of factors. One is the member's electoral vulnerability: The safer the seat, the more relaxed the staff. It also depends whether it's an election year. Typically, August is a lot more hectic in even-numbered years than odd-numbered. Party matters, too: Democrats in the majority during the final Bush years had little reason to waste their Augusts drumming up legislation that would get vetoed.

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Upending all August-related rules, however, is health care. Thanks to the Democrats' decision not to vote on health care reform until September, August has for many offices been a "recess" in name only. Members are touring their districts, meeting with local leaders and holding town halls—a routine that often requires just as much energy from the Washington staff as when Congress is in session. "There's a perception that when the cat's away the mice will play," says one Democratic staffer. "But that doesn't really happen."

Really, when the cat's away, the mice answer crazy phone calls. Normally the call volume goes down in August. This year, it's up. A lot of calls are generated by interest groups or robo calls related to health care reform. For example, a constituent might get a call at home saying, "Dial 1 if you want to stop socialized medicine," which then forwards them to their congressman's office.

Paul Tencher, communications director for Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy of Ohio, says he knows when a new robocall campaign is launched—the phones start ringing off the hook. "The rings get closer and closer together," he says. "It's like contractions."

What happens next depends on the identity of the caller. First, the staffer makes sure it's a constituent. If they're not from the district, he refers to them to their congressman. If they want to talk to a legislative assistant about a particular issue, they can generally get through. Often, they want to talk to the member of Congress; some members are more amenable than others.

Different offices have different philosophies for handling crazies. Some simply take a message. "It's not our job to give an opinion," says Tencher. "Our job is to hear their opinion and pass it on to the congresswoman." Others are more confrontational.Assistants to Rep. Barney Frank, for example, are allowed to push back when they field angry calls. The result can be a full blown argument between the caller and the intern or staffer. Frank can afford such a combative style—and staffers often take their cues from him—because he represents a safe district in Massachusetts.

All of which raises the question: For Congress, is August becoming just another month? Not quite, say staffers. This August is busier than most, they say, but the rest of the year is still worse. After August, says one, "It goes from stress to shock." When their bosses return next month, the public servants serving the public servants of the 111th Congress need to be prepared for even longer days and nights. And they'll need to wear proper pants.

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