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Freshmen reformers in Congress avoid Hill experience in staffing

But knowledge shown to help

- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 14, 2013

Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler is a 34-year-old Washington state Republican beginning her second term in Congress. The youngest female representative in Congress, she won't be old enough to run for president until November. But the people she relies on to carry out the day-to-day work of legislating make her look like an old hand.

Of her 21 staffers, only two arrived with any Capitol Hill experience. Her legislative director spent 2010 working as a legislative correspondent, one of the lowest positions in the Capitol, for another member. Her chief of staff for most of 2011, Afton Swift, spent a few years working for several lawmakers nearly a decade earlier but been out of the game since. Mrs. Herrera Beutler shared one other staffer with a few years' experience with other members.

The mammoth House tea party class elected in 2010 arrived as paradoxical players in a culture they crusaded against. They decried Washington experience as corrupting, a sign of what needed to change. The Washington Times found that many of the new members staffed their offices accordingly, eschewing those with legislative experience for those with roots in their home districts.

Eighteen members of Congress, including 15 House Republicans and one Democrat first elected in 2010, filled their offices with staff members who had an average of no more than one year of experience in Congress. So how did that work out?

Mrs. Herrera Beutler's staffers found much-needed guidance from fellow congressional staffs from Washington state.

"We knew them, so we might not have a lot of Capitol Hill experience, but they can tell us where the bathroom is," said Chief of Staff Casey Bowman, a former public relations consultant who took his first job on the Hill after working for her campaign.

Other longtime staffers occasionally regarded Mrs. Herrera Beutler's office with condescension or impatience, he said, "but you have to have thick skin."

Levels of experience

The Washington Times examined a decade of congressional payroll data, standardized by the website Legistorm, to determine which members had the most- and least-experienced office staffs. The snapshot from the previous Congress came from summer 2011, and years of experience were determined by looking at where a given staffer worked during summers. Interns and other temporary employees in 2011 were excluded.

Alan B. West, the outspoken Florida Republican elected in 2010 but defeated last year, named Jonathan Jeffrey Blyth his chief of staff, even though it had been eight years since Mr. Blyth had worked on the Hill, where he was chief of staff for Bob Barr, a Georgia Republican who retired from Congress in 2002.

No one from the class of 2010 has made the climb from outsider to the heights of power faster than Rep. Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican who was recently appointed to the state's vacant Senate seat. Nick D. Muzin, his chief of staff in the House, is a doctor, a lawyer and a former federal worker, but one of the few things not on his resume is prior Capitol Hill experience. Mr. Scott announced last month that he was hiring new staff, many with Senate experience, for leadership roles in his new office.

On the other end of the spectrum, Rep. Rob Woodall, Georgia Republican, attained the most experienced office in the freshman class by taking one off the shelf: From the highest to the lowest positions, he retained the personnel of his predecessor, John Linder, who retired in 2010 and for whom Mr. Woodall served as chief of staff.

By some measures, the insider experience seemed to make a difference: Mrs. Herrera Beutler introduced the third-fewest bills among the 2010 freshmen, while Mr. Woodall, a member of the Rules and Budget committees, sponsored the fifth most.

But having staffers plucked straight from a home district help maintain a focus on the district's residents. In Mrs. Herrera Beutler's case, that meant paying close attention to issues such as forestry.

When it came to hiring, "first was a willingness to serve constituents back home, and there was not a lot of weight put on having people who had been part of what was really a dysfunctional [Washington] culture," Mr. Bowman said. "You can always ask a question and learn what you need to know in the Capitol, but the knowledge of what people know back home is really hard to replicate."

Overall, House Republicans had an average of 20 fewer years of cumulative experience in their offices, which average about 20 people, than House Democrats did, according to the Legistorm data. That held true among newly elected members as well, with Democrats first elected in 2010 having eight years' more cumulative experience in their offices than their counterparts.

Supply and demand

In many cases, the lack of legislative experience among the huge 2010 class of House Republicans was a problem of supply and demand.

"The size of the 2010 class was unprecedented, so there weren't even enough experienced Republican staffers around. It took awhile for these offices to staff up," said Claude Chafin, spokesman for the House Armed Services Committee, which had 14 freshmen members.

More than a dozen self-professed anti-Washington reformers in the class of 2010 got a jump-start by hiring as top staffers people who didn't have recent Hill experience, but had spent much time there nonetheless and could hardly be called outsiders: federal lobbyists.

Rep. Andy Harris, a Maryland Republican elected in 2010, hired as his chief of staff Kevin C. Reigrut, a former project manager for consultant Booz Allen Hamilton. He has one other employee with two years' experience, plus a veteran employee who is shared with other offices.

Rep. Reid J. Ribble, Wisconsin Republican, has a combined 11 years of experience in his staff of 15 — and it's his executive assistant who is the most senior person in his office, with at least five years on the Hill dating back to 2001. (The Times' analysis includes only experience dating back to that year.) His chief of staff, McKay L. Daniels, hadn't worked on the Hill in more than a decade.

Mr. Ribble is a part of an institution that he contends is so broken that he started a Fix Congress Now caucus. But his ambitions have been tempered by the reality of the legislative pace.

The congressman "is a small-business man who's owned a business for 35 years, and it's been frustrating to work really hard and only have to make baby steps forward. He doesn't view himself as an insider or a politician, but once you've experienced the inner workings, you kind of adjust," said spokeswoman Ashley Olson.

"He came into this wanting to change things and how things are done here, but during his first term it was a lot about learning and getting used to how everything works in Washington."

His second term will be more productive than his first, she said, but that doesn't mean he intends to stay forever.

"He'll only be here for eight years. He thinks getting new people in here is the best possible thing you can do to make changes. You only have so much time left, so you prioritize and work to get those things done."

Rep. Jim McGovern, a nine-term Massachusetts Democrat whose staff of 22 has an average of seven years of experience, the fourth most of any member of Congress, said that because no lawmaker can do it alone, experienced staff members are needed to get things done.

"It's important that we've got institutional memory. We go through these big battles and it's helpful to have people around who know how to deal with this crisis because they've dealt with the last one," he said.

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