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How to make the Hill a better place to work has come up a lot in the news these days. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is setting a great standard for how to do it right, and on the other side, Amy Klobuchar has shown how to do it wrong. Since I have a few years on the Hill under my belt, I’m often asked for my opinion.
The Hill needs change. As Senator Warren might put it, “big structural change.” Paying staffers more and giving them actual labor protections—or, gasp, even a union!—is the most obvious thing that comes to mind. But I also believe that the Hill needs much stronger ethics rules to completely ban congressional staffers from assisting in fundraising efforts for their bosses—whether paid or “volunteer.” This would not only give everyone a better working environment, but also strongly reduce the corrupt influence of money in politics. Here are a couple of examples from my own experience.
A lot of the time, a high-level employee in a congressional office is responsible for raising money for the re-election campaign. Oftentimes, that’s the chief of staff. An office I’ve worked in had an arrangement like that. For both the member and the senior staff, this makes sense at first glance. The senior staff knows the members best, has the best relationships with their closest allies, and generally knows the lay of the land, which makes that person a really valuable fundraising asset.
The problem? Under that arrangement, the entire office can’t help but think about trying to maintain good relations with the corporations that give maxed-out checks, because they understand the pressure the chief of staff is under to deliver the goods. After all, if you’re in a competitive district, your job may depend on it. And if you don’t toe the line, you’ll end up hearing about it.
Here’s an example of how that works. One time, lobbyists from a telecom company arrived in my office during the fight over net neutrality, which would have barred Internet service providers from treating data differently, like setting up tolls to deliver Web pages more quickly. The chief of staff and I were the ones who took the meeting. The telecom was arguing against our office’s efforts to get the FCC to regulate them like a public utility. While they were at it, they also wanted to lobby us on reversing course and supporting the Trump tax cuts. They claimed that they really wanted to be regulated and were committed to net neutrality, and also promised $1 billion in infrastructure development if they got their tax cuts. I politely, but firmly, told them why many people didn’t trust them on either issue, and why the office was committed to the positions it held. I was cordial, but direct, about expressing our positions.
I came away from that meeting feeling content. My boss was a big supporter of net neutrality during that fight, and a fierce opponent of the Trump tax cuts. I thought I had done my job well and advocated for my boss’s positions on the issues, and stood up to the big corporate lobbyists! That’s what I came to Washington to do, after all.
My chief of staff, however, was far less impressed. Scared, even. They couldn’t believe that I had taken such a direct approach, and thought that I must not have understood that this relationship was very important to the boss. Which is short, of course, for “they’re big donors and you don’t treat big donors that way.”
I was working for the government. It wasn’t my job to consider that aspect. In fact, it was my job not to. But that didn’t matter. Legally and ethically, you’re supposed to keep campaign work separate from government side work, but that’s not the way it works when push comes to shove. That means big donors get the gold star treatment, even when their public positions are deeply antithetical to the stated positions of the office.
As a result of that interaction—which I considered fairly benign, all things considered—the chief of staff and I had to evaluate whether it was permissible to mention that company in any public communications we did about the net neutrality or tax cut issue moving forward, just to make sure we didn’t further “jeopardize the relationship” that I had damaged by not being pliant in that meeting. Is that the fault of the chief of staff, or even the member? No. That’s just how the system works. The member has to raise the money. The chief of staff has to get the checks. And everything flows down from that.
That wasn’t the only time this happened. Not too long after, I wrote a press release that singled out a few large companies for criticism on a totally separate issue. Unbeknownst to me, one of them was a longtime contributor. That created a kerfuffle because you’re just not supposed to do that. The “donor relationship” is paramount. The entire Hill economy runs on it, and those corporations take advantage of their superior position, especially when it comes to members with tougher re-election chances. That’s what corporations are buying with their campaign contributions. It’s not just about getting face time and call time with Members of Congress. It’s also about favorable treatment at the staff level—including, as I found out, literally buying positive public relations.
The entire campaign finance system should be scrapped to avoid outcomes like this. That’s a long ways off from happening, if ever, but there are things that can be done in the meantime to make things better. One of the easier methods would be to simply ban congressional staffers from having anything to do with fundraising. Do field work, do comms, do just about anything else for a campaign on your personal time if you want. But fundraising? Staff members shouldn’t even touch that on a volunteer basis, because it unavoidably spreads corruption all the way down the chain, and creates a work environment where staffers have to look over their shoulders as they try to serve the public interest.
This was anonymously written by a former Democratic aide.