GOP to Shake Up Hill Where It Counts: Staff

Democrat-run committees see end of 40-year domination

By , Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor

IN the quiet hallways of a stunned Capitol, worn jeans have replaced power suits, silence has replaced bitter debate, and wants ads have replaced position papers. Careers are ending.

The United States Congress, a city-within-a-city that employs over 30,000 people, has new maestros and a new mandate. Thousands of the party faithful, some holding $100,000-a-year jobs, may soon be out of work. An entire Capitol Hill culture, nurtured by 40 years of uninterrupted Democratic patronage, is going through a Wagnerian-sized shift.

House Speaker-to-be Newt Gingrich has vowed to slash a congressional operating budget that is the size of New Hampshire's. Mr. Gingrich has made vilifying Congress an art form. Now he and his fellow Republicans indirectly hold the fate of thousands of Capitol Hill employees in their hands.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

``Everybody is nervous.... Everybody has the jitters,'' said one House committee staffer who chose not to give her name. ``You've got people who have been here 17, 18, 19 years. They're not near retirement; they're 45, and they don't know how to start hitting the pavement.''

Gingrich's reach will be virtually limitless. Like his Democratic predecessors, he will control everything from which bills make it to the House floor to which floors will be carpeted.

Republicans will also control administration of the US Capitol, a self-sufficient metropolis within Washington, D.C., complete with its own police force, subway, restaurants, stores, post office, library, gym, doctors, barbers, elevator operators, and more.

Gingrich, who has promised a vote on cutting the 2,250 House committee staffers by one-third within his first 100 days, is expected to drastically change the way the House operates.

A less radical shake-up is expected in the more collegial Senate, where committees are somewhat less powerful. But new majority leader Sen. Bob Dole (R) of Kansas has promised to cut the Senate's 1,700 committee staffers by 30 percent.

For House Republicans, many embittered by years of Democrats blocking legislation in committees and limiting Republican staff sizes, majority is sweet.

``I'm really nervous,'' a Republican staff member says sarcastically as he gets his hair cut in the Rayburn House Office Building. ``It's really too early to know what's going to happen, but it's going to be busy for us.''

Gingrich's first targets are Congress's burgeoning committees, which now dominate the Capitol.

The number of House committee staffers has tripled from 700 in 1970 to 2,250 today. Senate committee staffs have grown from 635 in 1970 to 1,700 today.

The explosion of staffs began in 1974, when the Watergate scandal swept 46 Democrats to Congress. In an effort to reduce the authoritarian rule of certain committee chairmen, more subcommittees were created to decentralize power.

But committees and subcommittees continued to operate as virtual fiefdoms for their Democratic chairmen. Many powerful staffers served for decades in the same committees.

``A lot of the [committee] staff has its own agenda and is looking for make-work,'' says Pat Holt, an author and former senior staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Even some Democratic aides expressed glee over committee staffers facing unemployment. At times, one aide said he had to turn to minority Republican committee staffers for information because majority Democrats ignored him.

``Generals would return my call before they did,'' the aide says.

A former Senate staffer also showed little sympathy.

``If you're talking about the people who have been running the committees for the last 400 years, I was always impressed by how impressed those people were with themselves,'' he says. ``Breathtakingly overconfident is a perfect description of most people in Washington.''

Michigan State University Professor David W. Rohde warns that past efforts to cut the number of committees have not fared well.

``There are entrenched interests inside and outside Congress in favor of maintaining subcommittees,'' Mr. Rohde says. ``Lots of people say `I agree, [but] let's cut yours.'''

Hundreds of the personal staff of senators and congressmen already know they have lost their jobs. The roughly 55 people who work for Democratic Sens. Harris Wofford of Pennsylvania and Jim Sasser of Tennessee - both defeated by Republicans - have been told to move out of their offices by Dec. 15.

The ousting of 35 House incumbents last week has put more than 500 House staffers out of work. Most of them are Democrats and face poor job prospects in federal and state governments now dominated by Republicans.

``I'm going to try to look for a job here and keep my fingers crossed,'' says a worker in the office of defeated Rep. Dick Swett (D) of New Hampshire. ``A lot of people I know are just moving out of town and looking for other [careers].''

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...