It was a weekend afternoon a few years back, and the congressman was feeling sick, remembers a 33-year-old communications director. Her boss told her that a cup of orange juice would make him feel better.
“He’d just be like, ‘Well if you’re out, do you mind?’” said the staffer, who spoke with The Lily on the condition of anonymity because she still works in Congress. It didn’t matter that he was in his apartment near the Capitol and that she lived in Maryland. He needed her, so she got in her car, drove 30 minutes and brought him the juice.
This wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, the communications director said. It was just how relationships between staffers and their members worked: If you were lucky, she said, you felt like family. When she got married, the congressman’s daughter was in her wedding. (The communications director now works for a different member on the Hill.)
Like many high-level leadership roles, the top staff jobs in each congressional office — chief of staff, deputy chief, legislative director, communications director — require long hours. But the nature of the time commitment is unique, said Lea Sulkala, chief of staff for Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.), who also referred to her office as a “family.” “You have a different relationship with your member than you do with a normal boss, so you want to make yourself available to them after hours,” she said.
That can be harder to swing for some than for others. The particular demands of these relationships often keep primary caregivers — usually women — out of Congress’s top jobs.
Each member of the House of Representatives can employ up to 18 full-time staff members. And while about half of all congressional staffers are women, the top positions are far more male-dominated. Women make up only 35 percent of chiefs of staff, 36 percent of deputy chiefs and 38 percent of all legislative directors in the House, according to data analyzed for The Lily by Casey Burgat, a senior governance fellow at R Street, a nonpartisan think tank, who used payment records compiled by LegiStorm. (Those numbers were lower before the swell of female members in the 116th Congress took their seats.)
Across the board, high-level staffers working for Republican members skew far more male than those working for Democrats.
The top staffers in a congressional office are both researching and writing the member’s proposed policies, said Burgat, who wrote his dissertation on congressional staffs. The chief of staff, in particular, has an incredible amount of power, he said. “They speak on behalf of the member; they carry the authority of the member. They are the glue that holds the whole thing together.”
The most common path to a chief position, multiple women said, is to start at the very bottom of a congressional office — as a “staff assistant” — and work your way up. (Another common route is to come to Capitol Hill with a member after working on a campaign, another area where leadership is overwhelmingly male.) That process usually takes between eight and ten years, meaning that most chiefs, if they came to the Hill right after college, are first offered the top position in their early 30s, right around when most college-educated women start having kids.
At 33, the orange-juice-bringing communications director is two years into marriage and thinking seriously about having children. She’s not optimistic about her ability to balance the demands of her current job with motherhood.
“I love my job,” she said. “But like, I’m getting older ... I want at least one kid. What am I doing to do? I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
Many of the male chiefs of staff with families rely on a wife who stays at home, said Megan Savage, chief for Rep. Susan Brooks (R-Ind.) and a mother of two young children. But she doesn’t know of any chiefs with stay-at-home husbands. When Savage’s husband is at home, they coordinate to split child care — which helps a lot — but he’s often away for work.
She is part of a “chief-of-staff moms” group that regularly gets together to talk about how they’re managing it all.
The problem with these roles is that there are “no boundaries,” said 32-year-old Nayomi Valdez, district director for Rep. Xochitl Torres Small (D-N.M), who has two daughters, a 6-year-old and a 13-year-old. It’s standard practice for her to get a call from her boss or another colleague on weekends, late at night or early in the morning.
“My boyfriend will get so mad,” Valdez said. “He’ll be like, ‘It’s Saturday!’ And I’ll be like, ‘It doesn’t matter.’ I’ve really just given up all aspects of my life at the moment.”
Even as district director based in New Mexico, a role that is generally less time-intensive than the top jobs based in Washington, Valdez works six or seven days a week and has to make herself available constantly. When she asked to take one weekend off for her daughter’s birthday party in January, her chief of staff said they couldn’t make it work. She told her daughter that they had to postpone.
With any other demanding job, Valdez said, she would just have said no. But Torres Small is her friend — they spent months together on the campaign, when Valdez was a regional field manager — and “you don’t want to let your friend down.” She feels the same way about the rest of her team.
“I think that is just the nature of working so passionately and hard with a certain group of people,” Valdez said. “The lines get blurry between your personal life and your professional life. It’s a bond … and then you just don’t care.”
The pressure to always be “on” is particularly intense, Valdez said, because she is surrounded by male colleagues with fewer personal responsibilities.
“There is this one particular type of guy: He’s usually young, professional-looking, with a law degree and no personal ties,” she said. He is always available to respond to a text or a call. He doesn’t have kids, but she’s not sure his availability would change too much if he did.
On the campaign, Valdez initially tried to avoid talking about her children, reluctant to accentuate her other time commitments. But now she’s more open about it. “I have sort of carved out this niche: I am not a [single guy], and that’s what makes my perspective valuable,” she said. “But that’s hard to do.”
As Torres Small’s campaign was wrapping up, and the other top campaign staffers started talking about the jobs they hoped to land in her D.C. office, Valdez held back. She knew she couldn’t uproot her life and her kids, and move to Washington.
Whether top congressional aides start on the Hill as staff assistants, or come into an office at a higher level through a campaign, they’re likely to come from somewhere outside of the Washington region, said Sulkala, which can make child care particularly difficult. Without a family support system — and with a government salary that doesn’t easily stretch to cover the cost of a nanny — many have to rely entirely on day-care programs. That means kids have to be picked up at the same time every day, even though duties for top staffers usually continue into the evening. Multiple women said they spent several years on the wait list for the official House day-care before landing a spot. (The House day-care has recently expanded to come closer to meeting demand.)
Savage spends a lot of time thinking about how to make the top staffer positions more sustainable — and attainable — for primary caregivers, but she hasn’t come up with any solutions.
“The hours can stink, but I don’t know how to improve it. If they kill Osama Bin Laden on a Sunday night, you’re working on a Sunday night. You can’t just wait until Monday morning," said Savage.
Valdez has thought about moving to Washington and going for one of the top spots in her boss’ office, but the prospect doesn’t seem realistic.
“I’ve talked about maybe, in a few years, when my girls are older, pursuing something on the Hill,” she said.