The grown-ups remain in charge

When 20- and 30-something-year-old Capitol Hill staffers were singing along with Captain Kangaroo or enjoying the first episodes of “The Simpsons,” baby boomers were starting their first jobs here.

Staffers older than 40 often tend to be overlooked — just as long-standing features of a landscape don’t draw comment if they have been around a long time — while the ‘“young guns” who flock to Capitol Hill looking to change the world capture the glory, or at least the attention.

But even though a few long-serving staffers retired or left this year, including House leadership aides John Feehery, Jim Dyer and Billy Pitts, the over-40 crowd remains a strong force in an environment peopled mainly by Generation Xers.

The Hill searched for aides who were over 40 years old and had worked in Congress for more than 10 years, either with one lawmaker or committee or with several.

The list on this page is not intended as a ranking of the best staffers but is designed to illustrate different career paths and explore what brought them to Capitol Hill and kept them here.

Given the data from a 2004 survey by the Congressional Management Foundation (CMF), the average tenure of those in the group is remarkable; the average House staffer is 35 years old and works four years in one office and just five years in total in Congress. An earlier CMF survey found that the average Senate staffer was just 34 and spent 3.1 years in a single office and five years in the Congress.

Not surprisingly, many Democrats were motivated to work on Capitol Hill by the can-do political ethos of the 1960s. But so too were some Republicans.

“For those who came of age in the 1960s, [we have] this strange idea that public service and helping to make good public policy is still a great job and somehow still possible in this institution,” said Bill Hoagland, who began his career as a statistician at the Department of Agriculture and then joined the newly created Congressional Budget Office in 1975. He’s now an adviser to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).

Jane Woodfin, Sen. Joseph Biden’s (D-Del.) legislative director, said, “It seemed to be the thing to do. We believed in government service back then. Young people were very aware. It was the Vietnam era, the Richard Nixon era, and coming to Washington to do public service seemed a logical move.”

Woodfin arrived in Washington in 1975 and spent her first seven years working for then-Rep. Bob Traxler (D-Mich.) while finishing college and earning a law degree.

Others simply fell in love with Capitol Hill after college internships. Kathryn Lehman knew she would find a way back after interning for then-Rep. Austin Murphy (D-Pa.), her hometown congressman, in 1982. Seven years later, after earning a law degree, Lehman joined the House Judiciary Committee’s Republican staff. Since then, she has worked for two House Speakers, for the majority whip and, most recently, as chief of staff to Rep. Deborah Pryce (Ohio), the fourth ranking member of the GOP House leadership.

And, while most aides came to Washington when they were just out of college or graduate school, a few arrived after having established their own careers in business, politics or both.

Lloyd Jones, chief of staff to Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), is a fifth-generation logger and worked in the logging business for 30 years until he ran for the Alaska state Senate in 1986, where he represented southeastern Alaska. Six years later, he went to work for Young.

Scott Palmer has been Speaker Dennis Hastert’s chief of staff for 19 years in a row. By contrast, George Dalley has worked for Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) on three separate occasions (1972-77, 1985-89 and 2001 to the present). In between, Dalley worked in the State Department, managed a presidential campaign and practiced law.
On balance, the staffers over 40 have retained their idealism while managing to keep their egos in check. Unlike a handful of White House aides in each administration who become household names, congressional aides tend to remain anonymous.

Mark Salter, chief of staff to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), might be the exception, having gained some prominence by co-authoring McCain’s best-selling autobiography, Faith of My Fathers.

Age also excuses teenage antics. Edward Levine, a Democratic aide on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee who is over 60, says in his voice mail message that he is “offering new and used arms-control agreements, nonproliferation regimes and a fine selection of American-made weapons of war … and remember to ask about our daily specials.”

While they have found professional fulfillment, some have even found love. John McGill, chief of staff to Rep. Wally Herger (R-Calif.), met his wife, Susan McGill, chief of staff to Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), while working on the Hill.