Crowded House (and Senate)

capitol_hill.jpgThe New York Times today reports on overcrowding on senators-only elevators at the Capitol. The article is of the mocking, “here’s-a-quarter-call-someone-who-cares” variety, but I think it nonetheless picks up on a real issue. Having spent this summer moonlighting as a staffer for the Senate Judiciary Committee, I can confirm that overcrowding is a big problem on Capitol Hill.

I have devoted my professional life to public interest law and now academia, and so I had not thought of myself as someone who cares about workplace amenities. But I was taken aback by the uncomfortable working conditions in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, where I spent most of the summer. The elevators are painfully slow, and when they are arrive they are often jammed too full to allow anyone waiting to board. (I never attempted to board a senators-only elevator, as the NYT reported some staffers do, but I can certainly understand the temptation.) The eating options are abysmal, expensive, and packed during the peak lunch hours. More than once I observed staffers forced to “lunch” on popcorn from a stand in the basement – the cheapest and quickest way to ingest some calories in time to run back and deal with whatever crisis is brewing. And office space is a joke. Staffers with vital jobs are in windowless cubicles with little workspace, no privacy, and no opportunity for quiet contemplation.

So why should anyone care? Well, I don’t claim that improving working conditions on Capitol Hill should become a national priority. But nonetheless I think the time lost waiting for elevators, foraging for food, and trying to find a quiet place for a conference call is a net loss for taxpayers. And I wonder if it doesn’t create an atmosphere of anxiety, annoyance, and general frustration that infects the day-to-day interactions of staffers and senators with each other and the constituencies they serve.

But perhaps I take a good lunch a little too seriously.

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7 Responses

  1. Jim Harper says:

    Raise the bridge? No! Lower the river. Congress is trying to do too many things at once, many (most?) outside its proper authority. Working conditions would best be improved by reducing employment along with federal authority.

  2. John Armstrong says:

    But perhaps I take a good lunch a little too seriously.

    I’m not really one to eat lunch all that much (ah, the life of the perpetual student/academic), but if I did and I had to work in the heart of the District I know I’d hate the lunch rush. It’s made worse by that prohibition on packing your own (probably healthier and less expensive) lunch at home and brown-bagging it.

  3. Amanda Frost says:

    John, packing a lunch would solve one problem (though not all the rest I mentioned). But it’s hard to shop for and make a lunch when you work until after midnight and need to be back in the office at 7am, as is too often the case for many staffers. Not to mention there is very little refrigerator space in many offices.

    Jim, I agree that one solution would be to cut staff rather than improve conditions, and some would prefer that result. But considering that isn’t happening, I (mildly) worry about the effect of all that overcrowding on the work that is getting done.

  4. Frank says:

    I completely agree with you, Amanda. It’s yet another example of the public good being sacrificed in the name of “tradition” and “frugality.”

    I wonder if anyone has done a study on the ideological effects of such conditions, or low pay for legislators and assistants (a cognate problem)? PArticularly re:

    1) relative balance of power between exec. and legislature (if most of the exec. staffers have higher pay and nicer offices)


    2) any bias toward legislation supported by those of independent means, who don’t need high salaries (or more easily compensate for awful work conditions with deluxe home conditions)

  5. Liz L says:

    I completely agree. Check out Frederick Herzberg’s Two Factor Theory of Motivation. Poor hygiene factors (such as windowless offices, cramped cubicles, or eating popcorn in a basement(!)) lead to worker dissatisfaction, while high levels of motivation factors (advancement prospects, high responsibility, recognition) result in better performance. I think what saves The Hill is the fact that most staffers are incredibly self-motivated, despite the conditions Professor Frost describes. I’m a huge fan of making government more like business; I think even a few pictures on the walls in places like the Municipal Services Building here in Philadelphia would have tremendously positive psychological effects.

  6. Paul Gowder says:

    So I suppose I won’t get much of a hearing if I argue for taking the current conditions and adding rusty nails and hungry pumas?

  7. I’m with Mr. Harper – it’s tough to figure out just why Congress feels the need to work so hard (or rather, in election year parlance, fight so hard) to try to do things they shouldn’t be doing in the first place…although I’ve never been particularly impressed with the work ethic on the Hill – sure they put in a lot of time but work’s not occupying it.

    But Ms. Frost is probably right that a reduction of staff ain’t going to happen so , as a Malthusian alternative, why not just dramatically increase staff levels so that morale & productivity plumment even more. I, for one, promise never to complain that Congress failed to pass even more regulatory schemes that Congressional staffers, who were so instrumental in drafting such schemes, can then parlay into a job with private industry to help navigate their new employer through the new regulatory schemes.