Super...exhausted

David Bowen has a great deal of sympathy for supercommittee staffers, who were working around the clock in a last-ditch effort to reach a deal.

After all, the former health policy director for the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee experienced firsthand the grueling schedule and pressure-cooker environment associated with such a high-profile legislative mission.

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“There were times when we were frantically working absolutely flat-out for days, almost literally around the clock, sometimes literally around the clock, to meet some deadline,” Bowen recalled of his work on healthcare reform legislation in 2009.

“You’re working at a sprint pace over a marathon distance,” said Bowen, who will become the CEO of the nonprofit organization Malaria No More at the end of the month.

The same could be said for the nearly dozen congressional staffers who have banded together over the last three months to work for the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction.

Culled from various committees — including the Senate Finance and Budget committees — and borrowed from lawmakers’ offices, the supercommittee staffers temporarily left their full-time positions and moved to a makeshift workspace on the eighth floor of the Senate Hart Office Building.

There, they put in long days and nights as they worked to help House and Senate lawmakers broker a debt agreement.

Committee member Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) described staffers’ work as “public service at its best.”

“I can’t tell you how many hours of sleep they’ve deferred or how many times they’ve had to call their families and tell them they wouldn’t be home until after midnight,” he wrote in an email. “We’ve sat shoulder to shoulder working with them early and late, and we’ve shared more meals than I can count.”

He added: “This has been a marathon for our senior policy staffers, and the work and the pressure on them is cumulative. It’s remarkable how they just keep chugging along and sustaining this pace.”

One thing the staffers are unsuccessful at, however, is tooting their own horns. Reticent to discuss their work on the committee, the staffers have created a cone of silence around their efforts.

Keeping their identities private and the nature of their work hush-hush is a deliberate maneuver, according to House Associate Historian Kenneth Kato.

“By keeping it all behind closed doors, I think the hope is they’ll be able to thrash out the issues seriously without having to answer to ad hominem attacks from the outside,” he said. “The idea is to encourage them to think out loud, think outside the box, think of something crazy that might lead to a solution, and not have it count against them.”

Senate Historian Don Ritchie likened the opaque nature of the supercommittee to the Ethics or Intelligence committees, which do much of their work behind closed doors. What is a more recent phenomenon, he added, is the borrowing of employees from separate committees to staff a new one. 

Prior to the 1970s, “whenever there was a special committee or special investigation, they hired extra staff,” said Ritchie, noting that FBI agents or employees from the Government Accountability Office were often brought in.

The Watergate scandal created a need for more independent sources of information, and the size of the congressional workforce increased.

“Now you have a pretty large-sized staff that’s here permanently, and so when you have a special committee like this, senators and representatives can tap their regular staff from committees or from their own offices to come to work with them,” he said.

The only problem is that it stretches congressional staff much thinner and forces many to multitask, Ritchie said.

“Frenetic pace is not uncommon here, but obviously it puts a lot of strain on people,” he said. This constant strain can eventually result in burnout. “A lot of people don’t stay very long.”

Michael Lemov, a former chief counsel of oversight and investigations for the House Commerce Committee, experienced a great deal of stress during his time on Capitol Hill before leaving to work for private law firms.

“I would stay awake at night … the fear of making a mistake, of handing a member a report or a document or a draft that had some kind of an error in there and being called on it publicly was very significant. It could affect your future career,” he said. “The other thing is you’re being impugned all the time by lobbyists and others who would like to have a particular result, so there is an effort to reach you.”

Bowen also recalled the stresses of working on healthcare reform.

“I had a curious duality [of] feeling about it, that it was incredibly wearing and physically and mentally tiring, and yet at least I was very conscious of it being an incredible privilege,” he said.

“Key moments occur at 3 in the morning in a small room with people with inadequate sleep, and to some extent you’re striving to be one of those,” Bowen said. But “it’s not something that many people can sustain for decades at a time.”

Lemov said there are different factors that can ratchet up the pressure level of a congressional committee, including a complex mission, a limited time frame and the sheer breadth of the task.

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The “supercommittee has all three of those things going against it,” he said. “It has a sweeping mandate; its actions could affect every agency in the federal government and most industries in town.”

The mixture of supercommittee staffers from different areas of Congress who may not have worked together before can also contribute to greater pressure, he added.

“You don’t really know the working habits of your own staff,” he said, recalling personal experiences in which he would work late into the night rewriting reports other staffers had produced that were not up to par.

For Bowen, however, the shared nature of the committee experience helped create unique bonds.

There was “a real camaraderie that developed that’s kind of a camaraderie of the foxhole,” he said.

Committee camaraderie is particularly important given that staffers are frequently asked to abandon personal plans and time spent with their families when duty calls.

“It was hard to plan things over a weekend or over a holiday because it was so routine that deadlines would intrude,” said Bowen, whose healthcare legislation deadline abutted Christmas. “I’m sure that’s the case for the folks on the supercommittee.”

He also had a few words of advice for supercommittee staffers.

“The only thing I would say is that in the midst of the craziness, try and remember what an amazing experience it is,” he said. “That can be hard when people are running around, yelling at you.”

It is also “crucial to remember the real-world impact, because both what we did in health reform and what the supercommittee is dealing with right now do have some very, very major impacts in a lasting way,” Bowen said.