The Arm of Congress That Doesn’t Sleep

Behind every successful Member of Congress is a hardworking, usually out of-camera-range district staff that advises on local projects, helps people get lost Social Security checks and makes sure their boss arrives at his appointments. Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio was a congressional staffer before he was elected.

Behind every successful Member of Congress is a hardworking, usually out of-camera-range district staff that advises on local projects, helps people get lost Social Security checks and makes sure their boss arrives at his appointments. Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio was a congressional staffer before he was elected.

While Congress is on frequent recess and routinely at odds, congressional district staffers operate in a starkly different reality. Unencumbered by the dysfunction and partisanship in Washington, they play a critical role in the communities they serve.

While those inside the beltway may think they’re at the center of the universe, sometimes the most meaningful congressional action happens at the hands of a local staffer. Every day, far away from the news cameras lining the Capitol Rotunda, district staff members solve important problems for hometown constituents. In fact, a congressman representing his district often takes the shape of a field representative unraveling Social Security tie-ups or helping a constituent navigate bureaucratic red tape.

CFM represents clients in Washington, D.C., many of which are municipalities in the Pacific Northwest. As federal lobbyists for municipal clients, congressional district staff are our valued partners. After we identify local projects and priorities, we coordinate to make the case for federal funding in Washington. They help us nudge along federal agencies when they’re moving slow, weigh in with support for a client’s grant project and advise their boss to shed light on a local issue when appropriate.

They are also the full-time eyes, ears and mouth of a member in the communities they represent. They attend community events, local government meetings and meet face-to-face with constituents and local stakeholders on a daily basis. As such, we often rely on their local knowledge as a barometer.

Members of Congress are often required to be two places at once. In order to be effective, they must spend significant time in D.C. to build relationships and increasingly, raise money for their next campaign. However, the more time they spend in D.C., the harder it is to stay in touch with constituents and keep abreast of their concerns. District staff help alleviate this inherent dichotomy, providing the political linkage lawmakers themselves have a hard time sustaining. 

Paralyzing partisanship has plagued Congress in recent years, and the public has taken notice. Approval ratings for the institution as a whole are at record lows. However, it’s reasonable to assume that district staff play a role when many of those same voters – despite feeling fed up with Congress – think their local representative is still doing a good job. 

While the district office may not be as prestigious as the Capitol building, it’s fertile ground for political victories. District staff aren’t hamstrung by D.C. dysfunction, and can routinely achieve results, like helping a city mitigate congestion by securing a federal transportation grant, or issuing press releases to bring national attention to local issues.

So, as Congress members return to Washington after extended visits to their districts over this historically long recess, it seems apt to salute the men and women who spend each day working in those district offices – they're some of the hardest working, most productive people in Congress.

Michael Skipper is CFM’s Federal Affairs Associate. Before joining the team in Washington, D.C., Michael worked on state affairs in Oregon, where he also studied political science and environmental policy at OSU. In his free time, Michael enjoys traveling, reading and spending time with friends and family. You can reach him at michaels@cfmpdx.com