When TMI is just enough

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) once voluntarily told his staff that, as a high school student, he asked one of his teachers out on a dare.

In response, his staffers told the senator about hiking glaciers in New Zealand, jumping into a lake while pregnant so as to save a drowning sheep and crying at the end of the movie “The Notebook.”

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These revelations were all a part of the ice-breaker game “Guess Who?” at Isakson’s staff retreat earlier this year.

The games they play focus on anything “from ‘Who is your favorite celebrity?’ to ‘What’s your favorite movie?’ ” Isakson spokeswoman Sheridan Watson said, explaining that this year they decided to up the ante by having everyone reveal “a fact about themselves that no one else in the office would know.”

While congressional staff retreats usually include more mundane agenda items, like strategic planning for the year and discussions of the lawmaker’s overall goals, many Capitol Hill offices also throw in games, activities and outings to get to know their co-workers and become familiar with the communities for which they work.

The “Guess Who?” game played at Isakson’s retreats was inspired by a staffer’s 11-year-old daughter. During her trips to the office, she would have Isakson’s aides guess answers to quizzes she would compile from their various personal facts, Watson said.

Other offices have relied on more familiar bonding activities. It can be something as simple as going bowling — as Rep. Neil Abercrombie’s (D-Hawaii) office has done — or attending a University of Illinois football game and tailgate party, which Rep. Timothy Johnson’s (R-Ill.) office did on at least one occasion.

But even the most adventurous offices on Capitol Hill would find it difficult to outdo Rep. David Wu’s (D-Ore.) office. For his retreat, he sends his staff to boot camp — literally.

Every year Wu’s office convenes at Camp Rilea, a National Guard base located in his district.

In contrast to those offices that hold their retreats in hotels, Wu’s office forgos the creature comforts of maid services and professional catering.

“We bring in supplies and do our own cooking,” said Julia Krahe, Wu’s communications director. “It’s much more isolated than [if] we would be staying in a hotel, but also more communal.”

Krahe said relocating to a largely secluded military compound for staff bonding time has clear benefits.

“Instead of sitting around sort of a conference table, it’s more [like] sitting around a big living room,” she explained. “Removing everybody from their normal environment and isolating us all there together in an informal but work-focused way helps create the discussion that you need to come up with ideas.”

There was, however, a relaxing payoff for Wu’s last boot-camp retreat. Its end coincided with the broadcasting of the Super Bowl. So after wrapping up a day of meetings, the staff stayed together to watch the game.

Some lawmakers, particularly in the House, find that one of the most important components of the staff retreat is to familiarize aides with the district and the constituents. Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) takes this responsibility seriously, alternating the location of her staff retreats between Washington and Wisconsin every year.

When in Wisconsin, Baldwin’s retreats last about three days, according to spokeswoman Jerilyn Goodman. For at least one of these days, the entire staff will “travel to different parts of the district to see and meet with people involved in some of the local projects we’ve assisted,” she said.

Baldwin believes it is important that her entire office — all the way down to the staff-assistant level — have this kind of hands-on experience, because Wisconsin’s 2nd district “is kind of unique,” Goodman said. It’s a mix of urban, suburban and rural areas, as well as regions that have among the lowest and highest unemployment rates in the entire state.

Holding retreats in a lawmaker’s state or district is also a convenient way to escape the hustle and bustle of Washington. According to Krahe, Camp Rilea’s location near the Oregon coastline provides a convenient opportunity to “go down and watch the water and unwind.”

Many staffers said this opportunity to collectively unwind is perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of the retreat. As Abercrombie spokesman Dave Helfert pointed out, the “informal time” that comes after the official meetings are over provides an excellent opportunity for “fun and bonding” among staffers.

Ultimately, though, there is no escaping the core purpose of the retreat, and the heavy lifting is often done through group discussions moderated by a professional consultant.

Beverly Bell is the executive director of the nonprofit Congressional Management Foundation, which conducts between 50 and 60 congressional staff retreats each year. She said one of the most common goals for an office is “to improve communication and understanding between their Washington and their home-state offices.”

“The functions are so different that it is hard for staffers in D.C. to grasp what it is like to be in the district and vice versa,” she said.

But when the retreat ends, the moderated discussions and formal presentations are not usually the hot topic of conversation around the office water cooler. It is the unexpected — such as the realization your boss once made an amorous overture to a high school teacher — that likely lingers on in the minds of the participants.