Fitch is president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation.
At a time when many Americans lament that members of Congress representing the two major parties don't have anything in common, there is one very sad metric they share: Both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill are on the receiving end of a massive increase in hostile messages and death threats.
The level of vitriol flowing through the internet and phone lines to Congress is greater than at any other time in American history. Capitol Police Inspector General Michael Bolton testified at a congressional hearing recently that the number of death threats doubled in 2021 compared to last year.
It is impossible to diminish the emotional and psychological scar this leaves with members of Congress and their families, but there is another group deeply affected that often goes unnoticed — congressional staff. Members of Congress don't answer their own phones or open emails sent to their offices — thousands of congressional staff are on the front lines of our democracy and getting the brunt of angry, racist, hurtful and dangerous speech that is polluting our nation. In a snap poll of congressional staff a few weeks ago the Congressional Management Foundation asked whether staff had recently experienced direct insults or threatening messages or communications. More than three-quarters said they had.
Perhaps one can merely cast aside concerns for staffers' welfare with a simple, "Well, that's what they signed up for when they were hired." No, not exactly. Congressional staff score amazingly high in any assessment of their level of job engagement and dedication to their profession. Staffers in Congress are not alone in their passion to help despite stressful and demanding conditions. First responders, nurses, Navy SEALS and others also make sacrifices resulting from their commitment to serve. The difference between them and congressional staff is this: most Americans who make sacrifices for others are lauded for those sacrifices, whereas congressional staff are ridiculed, belittled and literally spat upon in the public square. There comes a point where the abuse overwhelms the passion, the negativity erases all meaning of why they jumped on this crazy roller coaster called Congress to begin with.
Adding to the horror and pain is that many staffers are still working from home, and sharing phone answering duties with office colleagues. Without warning, a staffer picks up her phone to hear these chilling words: "We're coming for the congresswoman, her family, you, your family ... and we know where you live!" Before the staffer can hang up, the caller has cursed at her several times. This episode has played out countless times in the congressional community since the siege on January 6. Just think about that scene in an American home — one minute a staffer is fielding a death threat, the next moment her 6-year-old appears at her home office door asking for a peanut butter sandwich.
Leaders in Congress don't have to accept this abuse without responding. Experts in psychology and security say managers should demonstrate empathy and understanding of what staff are going through, encourage self-care and change policies to reduce the possibility that staff will be receiving "live" death threats by phone. "Leaders have to make it safe in the office for staff to express feelings and for staff to take care of themselves," said Brian Baird, a former member of Congress and clinical psychologist who has been conducting staff training sessions with CMF during the pandemic. "Building and modeling a culture of support is part of what can come out of this pandemic," he said. "We need to work on our team support and not let people fend for themselves."
CMF also strongly recommends that congressional offices temporarily stop taking live calls and move all incoming calls to voicemail. We know that some members will balk at this — however, CMF has worked with offices thathave moved to this policy and have seen no constituent push back. People are just fine getting a call back in two to four hours. These offices also report that staff are relieved from the fear of the next call. Managers: This means such a policy would result in GREATER job engagement by staff, improved morale and likely more staff retention.
For too long staff in Congress have been viewed as expendable and easily replaced. This not only has a tangible negative impact on the institution of Congress, it exacts a terrible toll on these amazing public servants. A recent news story examined the impact of the Jan. 6 insurrection and the aftermath of that attack on the mental and physical well-being of congressional staff. One staffer said: "Staff in general have been feeling like we're invisible, like nobody is looking out for us." Staff are the lifeblood of this institution, and the culture needs to change to treat them accordingly. Part of that culture of change should be to acknowledge the distressing and negative effects that this pandemic and the events of Jan. 6 are having on congressional staff, and take tangible steps to protect employees from these unbearable attacks to their mental well-being.
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Patton is director of the Rebuild Congress Initiative and a co-founder of the Harvard Negotiation Project. Fitch is president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation.
In an era when polls show head lice is more popular than Congress, something unusual is happening in Washington. Twelve politicians from all ideological stripes are regularly getting together to address serious problems, demonstrate mutual respect and make unanimous recommendations about improving our democratic institutions.
This unlikely group of superheroes is called the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress.
This committee was approved 418-12 by the House in January to "investigate, study, make findings, hold public hearings, and develop recommendations on modernizing Congress." This mandate may sound mundane, but it's actually very broad and there is an urgent need for Congress to upgrade its processes, systems and resources. Consider: The number of expert staff supporting Congress is down by a third since 1995, and the average age of a staffer is now 26.
These are the people who help Congress investigate problems, identify waste, oversee bureaucrats and regulators and come up with policy solutions. So perhaps it is no wonder the federal budget is up 50 percent, meaningful oversight is now rare and lobbyists are often asked to draft legislation.
Congress' technological resources are antiquated: Members cannot get "redlined" versions of proposed legislation, showing exactly how existing law would be changed. They are consistently overscheduled, often for multiple meetings at the same time. And much of the legislative process is still required by law to be paper-based. This in a world where constituents expect an Amazon-like timeline for service.
The committee is led by two results-oriented members, Chairman Derek Kilmer, a Democrat from Washington, and Tom Graves, a Republican from Georgia. These leaders wisely chose to operate their committee differently — not just from select committees of the past, but than any committee in the history of the Congress. The Democrats, as the majority in the House, could have created a committee with a majority of their party. Instead, the committee has six members from each party. Those members deliberately include representatives serving on other committees with jurisdiction over House operations, including the House Administration, Appropriations, and Rules panels. Those stakeholders not only bring the perspective of their respective committees, they also can later be advocates for recommendations that require broader congressional support.
Procedurally, the select committee has tried what many might consider "little" changes, but which constitute real change in congressional processes. For example, in one hearing, instead of the all Democrats sitting on one side of the dais, and Republicans on the other side, they sat side by side, donkey next to elephant.
In another hearing, on developing future leadership in the Congress, the chairman and vice chairman gave up the gavel and allowed the committee's two freshman lawmakers to chair the hearing. (Question to seasoned observers of Congress: When was the last time you saw a Democratic or Republican chairman willingly give up the gavel at a committee hearing?)
The select committee has already issued some strong recommendations that will improve the operations and transparency of Congress. They include opening up the committee process so Americans can see the inner workings of Congress; improving the orientation process for new members and making it nonpartisan; creating a central human resources office; and streamlining a vast array of technology processes and tools to save money and improve services to constituents.
There have been some disagreements, but these have been resolved in the kind of hard-headed working sessions the American people expect. In this sense, the select committee is not just offering substantive solutions to challenges facing the Congress; it is demonstrating by example how elected officials can solve problems collaboratively.
The committee's working motto is to create a Congress that "works better for the American people." Its members understand the ultimate assessor and benefactor of their work isn't a bunch of politicians in Washington, it's their constituents.
Unfortunately, the clock is ticking on this admirable team. The committee was given an initial budget and mandate that expires in less than five months. But surely their demonstrated accomplishments, pioneering new methods for decision-making and increasingly strong working relationships merit an extension. Kilmer, Graves and the rest of the panel serve as a useful example of what is possible to their colleagues and are entitled to another year of effort. With their track record to date, who knows what this committee could accomplish with more time working to restore the functionality to our first branch of government.
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