Moving out, moving on

Rep. Rick Boucher’s (D-Va.) staffers have been so busy sorting through 28 years’ worth of congressional documents, mementos and correspondence, they haven’t had a chance to start applying for new jobs. 

And aides in Rep. Ciro Rodriguez’s (D-Texas) office are finding the job market so competitive that many are using the lawmaker’s loss as an opportunity to go to law school or get a master’s degree. 

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More than 1,600 Democratic staffers whose bosses fell victim to the Republican sweep of the House will soon be out of a job. And, as if the joblessness weren’t enough, they’ve also been tasked with shutting down an entire office, closing thousands of constituent case files and braving waves of incoming Republican staffers who — with measuring tape in hand — are sizing up their new workspace. 

“It’s a sobering experiencing,” said Jessica Barba, the spokeswoman for Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.), a freshman lawmaker who lost his reelection bid in one of the most closely watched races this November.

“It’s crazy how fast they make you clear out,” said Barba, staring at a roomful of boxes in her boss’s Longworth office. “People stopped by a couple of times to ask about moving furniture, and I think there have been some people stopping by measuring the curtains and all of that. When we came in here, it was totally bare, and we just built the office from the ground up. And now we have to break it down. It’s a little bit of a daunting task.”

Perhaps even more daunting is that, with so many Democrats becoming jobless all at once and only a smattering of available jobs, the employment market has become akin to a bottleneck scenario, with everybody vying for the same positions. And that’s not even taking into account that the national unemployment rate is hovering around 9 percent. 

While Boucher said his staff hasn’t begun to actively look for jobs yet, many Democratic staffers have. Rodriguez said it’s been tough so far, in the three weeks since the election, and many have turned to other alternatives. 

“It’s been difficult for them to find jobs, but it’s coming together,” Rodriguez said. “The beauty of it is they’re really bright. A lot of them are going to get their master’s or law degrees, which is good during these economically difficult times. And some of them are looking at the private sector. I just talked to a law firm today regarding one of them.” 

Rodriguez said he has tried to help his employees who have health concerns find a job first, so that they can continue to have health insurance. 

Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.), a sophomore lawmaker who lost his bid for his state’s open Senate seat, said he’s been writing a lot of glowing letters of recommendation for staff, and hoping that the loss hasn’t made them too contemptuous of government and political life. 

“It’s easy for me to give all-star recommendations because it’s all true,” Hodes said in an interview in the Speaker’s Lobby. “I think most of my staff are looking at other positions in government. Some are ready to move on to law school or graduate school. But I certainly hope they don’t become cynical as a result of the tsunami.”

One senior staffer for a longtime House member who lost reelection said she was doing everything possible to land the younger staffers jobs on Capitol Hill or in the executive branch. But, she said, many of the staff who have worked in Congress for decades have had their fill of political life and are ready to move on. 

Massive layoffs on Capitol Hill can be different from the private sector, however, because there’s a support network built into place, said a senior Democratic aide to a junior member who was defeated this year.

“When one of our staff goes out on an interview, they have the backing of all their friends here, and that really makes a difference in your confidence level as you go to consider the next step,” the staffer said. “We specifically talked about the importance of supporting each other, and when you see job listings coming in, taking a hard look at if they’re right for you, and if they’re not, who they might be right for here and trying to help each other along. And they’ve done a great job of it.”

Some have fared better, though, like the staff of members such as Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), who announced his retirement earlier this year. 

“We had a head start on my colleagues,” Kennedy said as he walked to votes last week. “They’ve all ended up in good places. I have hardly anybody left in my office right now, which is good news.”

But nearly all of the dozen Democratic lawmakers and staff The Hill spoke with for this article said it’s difficult to stay focused on the job hunt while there’s so much to do in the office. 

Giant gray trash and blue recycling bins have lined the halls of the three House office buildings for weeks now, overflowing with everything from pocket-sized Constitutions and boxes of U.S. Capitol Historical Society calendars to monthly financial statements and district maps. Barba said she tossed more than 300 newspapers into the recycling bin last week. In a bin outside retiring Rep. David Obey’s (D-Wis.) office, there were newspaper clippings dating back to 1977. 

“We’re too busy to be terribly reflective,” said the senior staffer for the longtime House member. “I mean, every once in a while I’ll come across a file that reminds me of something that we did for somebody and it cheers me up that we made a difference there.”

The office of the House’s Chief Administrative Officer provides members and their staffs with a checklist of 33 items, such as accounting for computers and submitting reimbursement receipts, that need to be taken care of before they leave. But even that falls a little short, said the staffer for the longtime House member. 

“It’s an incomplete list, as we’re discovering,” she said. “There are a lot of little things that you don’t even think about, like, ‘Oh, yeah, I have to turn off the district telephone and figure out when the BlackBerrys get turned off.”

And then there are the case files for constituents in the members’ districts. If a constituent comes to a lawmaker with a request or a problem, and a file is created to help him or her, the constituent needs to pick up the file or it gets destroyed with the lawmaker’s departure, said Rodriguez, who lost reelection once before, in 2004.

“This is my second time [losing], so I know what to do, and we’re moving on it,” he said. 

As hard as it is to move on from Capitol Hill, many staffers are trying to look at it optimistically. When all is said and done and her office is vacated this week, Barba and her husband are planning to take the honeymoon they never had after their June wedding. And she’s also planning to celebrate her last two birthdays, which, as the day after Election Day, had been overlooked in the midst of the relentless political schedule she kept.

“We’ve got a lot of catching up on life to do,” she said with a laugh.