Later hours for Hill aides mean boom for area businesses

Businesses across the nation have been sharpening their bookkeeping pencils under the heaving pressure of a widespread recession, while staffers on Capitol Hill clock 12-hour days attempting to ease the burden.

And it’s working. For restaurants and bars in the neighborhood where staffers spend their most time, the math is written on the wall: Longer workdays for staffers equals more business.

“The more [staffers] are working, the better it is for all of us,” said Harvey Mendelsohn, manager of Good Stuff Eatery, a restaurant two blocks from the House office buildings opened last year by his son Spike Mendelsohn, of “Top Chef” fame.

“They’re working longer hours and they have to come to eat and we’re the only game in town in these last couple of blocks,” he said. “If [President] Obama keeps them working like this for the next four years, I’m going to be very happy.”

With the fullest legislative agenda since 1995, when the Republicans took control of Congress, Capitol Hill staffers, renowned for their relentless work ethic, are being asked to push even harder.

“We’ve had a huge amount of legislative agenda come through, far more than in previous Congresses,” said Fred Beuttler, deputy House Historian.

“This is one of the busiest Congresses we’ve had probably since 1995, and it’s the overall amount of work that people are putting in because of the size of the legislation coming through week after week.”

Jamie Radice is a typical case: awake and checking the news by 7 a.m. By 8:30 a.m. she is stepping into Rep. Carol Shea-Porter’s (D-N.H.) office. This wouldn’t be so bad for the 28-year-old communications director, if it meant she got to leave by 5 or even 6 p.m.

But when the House is in session it’s rare that Radice leaves work before 8 p.m. — and in some cases, she has stayed as late as 2 a.m. A midnight cab ride home from Capitol Hill is definitely not a rarity. But she’s not complaining.

“It’s very easy to work hard for someone you really respect; it’s not something you really think about,” she said. “I don’t think anyone would want to work until 2 a.m. at a job they don’t like.”

Though work may seem like it consumes the life of staffers, many — even those earning less than $40,000 a year — see the struggling economy as a call to spend money.

“If you’re working really hard, there are obviously going to be times when you want to relax with your friends,” said a Republican House legislative aide speaking anonymously. “I’m not making a ton of money, but I’m of the mind that I do need to be contributing to the economy, because I do have a job. So I’m not conscientiously spending any less.”

While some staffers, like Radice, pack a dinner or skip it altogether on nights they work late, others choose to unwind at area restaurants and bars. And their bosses do, too.

{mospagebreak}“We get the congressmen in and the over-40 crowd,” said a manager for Zack’s Taverna, on Pennsylvania Avenue two blocks from the Cannon House Office Building. He declined to be identified.

“Our food and drinks are pretty reasonably priced. We can stay competitive, so it’s been nice and steady.”

Congress’s calendar is a key indicator of staffers’ hours. On a recent Saturday afternoon, the only offices with computers alight were those of members who had bills coming to the Senate and House floors the following week.

“When your issue is hot, you’re working until 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. every day, and it’s all hands on deck,” said a Democratic Senate aide who has worked on Capitol Hill for 14 years.

It’s not just the economic woes that have made for a busy start this year. For Democrats, this session has proven busier than usual. Having a president of their own party in office brings possibilities for legislation that President Bush would have vetoed.

In addition to the budget making an earlier-than-usual debut this Congress, heated legislation concerning healthcare, education and immigration is already being slated.

“There are a lot of legislative ideas that now we can finally put into place and we don’t have to necessarily worry about the Republicans,” the Senate aide said. “I think we’re a lot more busy, but it’s all relative, because we all work very, very hard.”

The long hours and late-night unwinding can take their toll, several staffers said. On Friday the American College for Preventative Medicine is holding a nutrition and stress educational session in the Senate Hart Office Building to advise staffers on how to cope with the long hours.

The House gym in the Rayburn House Office Building last month recognized the unusually long hours staffers are working and opted to stay open one hour later because staff members were rushing to fit in a last-minute workout at 9 p.m.

Committee staffers have been hit the hardest, and with the economy in turmoil, Congress is looking for areas where costs can be trimmed. But committees are already understaffed. At a recent hearing for committee budget requests, many chairmen and ranking members said their staffs are overworked and underpaid.

One of the busiest is the House Financial Services Committee, which has overseen nearly all the financial restructuring legislation, including the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

“I feel terribly guilty about the people who work for the committee and how overworked they are and overstressed,” said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who as chairman asked for a $3 million increase in committee funding this year to bolster staffing levels. “We definitely need more [staffers].”

A spokesman for the committee said staffers were too busy to comment for this article.

During the stimulus debate last month, Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), chairman of the Appropriations Committee, paused to thank the staff of all the committees involved.

“So often these people go one and two and three days in a row with little or no sleep,” he said. “That certainly has been the case this week.”

And while Obey in a committee hearing last year admitted to his penchant for gin, the grass has not been entirely green for the liquor store one block from the Cannon House Office Building.

“Because Congress is very busy with Obama, a lot of the staff can’t really come out,” said Jason Kim, a manager for Congressional Deli & Liquors, which closes before many staffers finish their day’s work. “In general it’s been a slight fall-off, but not as bad as some liquor stores in other places.”

But even the liquor store has hope for Obama’s agenda.

“Once everybody figures out the whole definition of the stimulus package that Obama’s doing, everyone will finally start to relax a little,” he said. “Not really go back to the old ways, but maybe start hitting a routine. I’d say give it a year and everything should be stable.”