By Jordy Yager - 12/25/10 10:00 PM EST
As control of the House changes, so do work tempos and personal lives
In a couple of weeks, life will change dramatically for hundreds of returning House lawmakers and thousands of their staffers as the Republicans claim majority status in the 112th Congress and Democrats settle into the minority.
The change will not just be political. It will also mean significant lifestyle and workplace adjustments for nearly everybody who works in the House.
The Republicans’ workweek will become substantially longer, their families will see less of them and their offices will take a different — more chaotic — tone, with lobbyists and constituents streaming through their doors, according to more than a dozen lawmakers and staffers from both parties who have worked on Capitol Hill for a decade or more.
Likewise, Democrats will be able to enjoy longer lunches but also have to put up with bosses who are in the office more, because they won’t have as much committee work to attend to, they say. The bright side: a lightened workload that comes with rejecting policy, as opposed to crafting it.
“There’s a real burden or obligation or responsibility on the majority that the minority doesn’t have, and it’s reflected all the way from top to bottom,” says Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), who has served in the minority for most of his 16 years in office. In January, he will take over as chairman of the House Administration Committee.
“It’s the difference in boxing between being a reactive puncher and a puncher,” Lungren says. “There’s a lot of nitty-gritty stuff that not only goes to members, but staff as well, like just pure scheduling.”
Twenty-six-year House veteran Howard Coble (R-N.C.) agrees that the workload for both lawmakers and staffers is lighter in the minority because it’s more reactionary.
“When you’re in the minority, it’s a lot easier to hit that red button,” Coble says. “It’s a lot easier to come out ‘no’ on an issue. When you’re in the majority, it’s not quite that comfortable.”
A Republican aide to another longtime member put it more bluntly, saying the duties of a minority staffer aren’t nearly as pressing as the workload of those in the majority.
“Let me say it like this: If you’re down in Longworth having lunch with co-workers and you need to take an extra 30 minutes, nine times out of 10, the boss isn’t going to frown on that,” the staffer said.
But the minority party doesn’t necessarily get to slack off, several longtime Democratic and Republican staffers say.
“It’s just a different sort of work,” a Democratic aide says. “You have to follow very closely what the other party is doing and make sure that you’re on top of your response to an issue when they pivot.”
As for members, a big shift in time-management occurs when committee chairmen become ranking members. As the current head of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) expects he’ll spend more time in his district and with his personal-office staff next year.
“They’ll probably be tickled to see me more,” he says of his staff. “Physically, I’ll be more present in my district rather than looking at issues along the border and all over the country. I’ll have more time to deal with constituent work.”
As Republican lawmakers begin to focus on their committee duties, staff in their personal offices will not have as much access to them; simultaneously, those staffers will take the lead on the details of constituent work and writing legislation. The shift in dynamics forces staff to take a more assertive role.
“You become much more autonomous as an office,” a veteran Democratic staffer says. “When we came back in the majority [in 2007] after 12 years of not being in it, it was like the difference from being in college to going to grad school. The boss isn’t around as much to give you a guiding hand.”
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who has served for four years in both the majority and the minority, agrees, adding that he has talked with staffers about the impact their new role will have.
“You have to re-orient your staff and … say, ‘Hey this stuff could become law now,’ ” Cole says.
Though they have hated it politically, several Republican staffers say that on a personal level they’ve been OK with being in the minority the past four years because it’s given them more time to be with family and friends.
“I let family know [after Election Day] that I won’t be as available as I have been over the past couple years,” one Republican aide says. “I just know it’s going to be a heavy lift, and that’s going to take its toll on the personal side.”
Something as basic as a lawmaker’s office traffic often changes, as well. Minority offices usually see fewer constituent, lobbying and media requests simply because they don’t set the tone for the chamber, Cole says.
“You get a lot fewer visitors,” he says. “The reality is you’re not in the middle of decisions as much as you were. The other side has the initiative, and, frankly, you have more influence in the majority.”
Several Democratic aides say they’ve already noticed a downturn in foot traffic and phone calls. Most say they’ve tried to use the shift as an opportunity to focus on a few key legislative areas instead of aiming to affect a broad range of issues.
“Where one door closes, another one opens,” a Democratic staffer says. “In the minority, you really have to pick and choose where you want to leave your mark. And if you work hard enough at it, you really can [affect policy] on a smaller scale.”
Political tides can turn quickly, and Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) advises lawmakers and aides in the minority not to take their diminished status personally. They might not have as many friends as they did when they were in the majority, but the 38-year veteran says minority lawmakers have the opportunity to develop longer-lasting political relationships that could be more fruitful anyway.
“It’s amazing how many more acquaintances you have when you’re in the majority and how quick those acquaintances leave when you cease to be in the majority,” he says. “I try to remind staff once in a while that this wheel is turning, so they shouldn’t seek revenge for those who treated them badly … because it can come back to bite you.”