News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Sunday, December 11, 2011

How to get fired. And deserve it.

U.S. Rep.Rick Larsen (D-WA) learned at noon Thursday that three of his Washington, D.C. staff members had tweeted comments which revealed that they were behaving badly  in major ways and were insulting the congressman with some of their twitters.  By 1:10 p.m., he had fired them.  

In chatting with some former Congressional staff members, I found that they shared my incredulity that these people were ever hired as staff members.  Most staff members are people who are diligent in their support of their employers and if they do not respect their boss, they quit rather than utter any disparaging and insulting comments.  

My spouse worked for both a U.S senator and a U.S.  representative.  My blogging upset her at times.  I was critical of some of the votes and rationales offered by her representative at times, and this caused some of her staff colleagues to suggest that my "disloyalty" put her job in jeopardy.  Her colleagues were so conscientious about displaying their loyalties, that they interpreted any disagreement as disloyalty.  The problem was that I, and other solid party members, saw that the representative was alienating some of the strongest supporters in trying to appease some conservatives about matters that touched on fundamental issues of equality, liberty, and human rights.  A number of liberal bloggers showed diffidence about the election of 2010, and many people did not bother to vote, but the diffidence also has an effect on those do vote but are uncertain about the candidates.  That diffidence may well influence decisions to vote for the other candidate. 

My spouse is no longer a staff member, as both of her bosses lost elections. And while I disagree with the staff members that my blogging should be of any concern to them regarding my wife's job, I admire and am hugely impressed about the way those Congressional staff members did their jobs and what they did for people in the state.  They were efficient and effective far beyond mere competence, and they possessed the integrity and benevolent decency that can't be questioned.  

That is why I find it incredulous that the three staffers in Rep. Larsen's office had managed to land Congressional jobs.  Rep. Larsen was absolutely right in getting them off the Congressional premises as soon as possible.  Their identities and what they said and, apparently, did are known, and I would be dismayed if they ever found themselves working for Congress again.

The Congressional staffs I am acquainted with have been and are meticulous about the way they conduct themselves while working or meeting the public in any capacity.  As treasurer for the county party, I once came to my wife's office to count some money and write a deposit slip before going to the bank across the hall.  I was summarily told that any kind of partisan activity was forbidden in a Congressional office and I must do my party business elsewhere. 
Which I did, and with appreciation of the standards of conduct being maintained.

An incident involving some interns illustrates the concern of the staffs for fulfilling the nonpolitical obligations of the serving the constituents.  After a late winter blizzard and subsequent flooding devastated the ranching and livestock business in South Dakota, the state's senators had organized a very fast and effective disaster relief effort.  This was before the hurricane Katrina, and FEMA in the area was administered by a former Congressional staff member.  The senators wanted a full report on how fairly and effectively the disaster aid was delivered, and a number of people with expertise in making such reports were employed in gathering the information and writing the report.  That effort resulted in a very large and detailed document, and when it came time to send the finished product out to the pertinent  people, the combined staffs of the Congressional offices got together to do the photo-copying, collating, and envelope stuffing.  This included some staff interns.

The interns were sitting around a conference table applying address labels to envelopes, inserting the finished report,  and, as young people are wont to do, were chatting about their colleges while doing so.  The banter turned into a kind of ridicule contest about some of their professors.  However, constituents were coming in and out of the office on business, and the banter was the kind of talk that was discouraged during the conduct of official Congressional business on premises governed by the rules for Congressional facilities.  A senior staff member from Washington heard the disparaging banter and told the interns to leave and said the regular staff members and some volunteers  would finish the mailing work.  The interns were later released from their internships with a letter of explanation on how they had violated the rules of conduct in a way that compromised the non-political requirements of a Congressional service office.  The matters was especially sensitive because people of the opposing political party were coming in and out of the office to personally pick up a copy of the report, and the derisive chatter could be surmised by them to be the attitude of the office.  The senior staff member thought that immediate disciplinary action was required under the circumstances.

 Faculty served as supervisors of student internships, and the dismissal of the interns was discussed at a meeting.  I explained the situation, and one of the faculty immediately raised the matter of freedom of speech being squelched in a Congressional office of all places.  Ironically, he was one of the professors about whom comments had been made.  But that freedom of speech issue had been explained to the interns.

First of all, anyone  in a Congressional office has a right to register an opinion and ask for information.  The staff members may provide information as to their boss's stance and votes on an issue, but they are never to engage in political arguments.  The purpose of the offices is to serve the constituents, not operate as a campaign site for the legislator.  That is why campaign materials will never be found in an incumbent's office.  Operating a service office is part of the nonpartisan work that a representative or senator undertakes in representing a district or a state.  The rules that limit any kind of partisan activity are set by the sergeants at arms of the respective bodies.

A problem in politics is that the non-political work and the effectiveness with which it is done cannot be a campaign issue because much of that work is done on a confidential basis.  Some legislators strive to emphasize the competence and effectiveness of their staffs. What should be a major criterion in assessing the value of a legislator in representing and serving constituents is hardly ever alluded to.  

South Dakota has had Congressional staffs working for it that have been cited as models.  Other legislators who have wanted to establish the highest levels of service for their offices have sent their staffs to the state to observe and learn.  However, the voters have little idea of what  can be lost when a legislator who has placed priority on serving the constituents is voted out of office.

When Rep. Larsen fired three staff members for the kind of behavior they indulged in, he was serving Congress and his constituents in his home district.  But his constituents probably have no conception of why it should matter to them. 

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States