Center for Effective Lawmaking

Watch: The Role of Experienced Congressional Staff

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Watch: The Role of Experienced Congressional Staff

Watch: The Role of Experienced Congressional Staff in Effective Lawmaking

On June 5, 2020, the Center for Effective Lawmaking hosted a discussion about the role and importance of experienced legislative staff on effective lawmaking. Mike Henry, Chief of Staff for Senator Tim Kaine, joined Center for Effective Lawmaking Co-Director, Professor Craig Volden, for a virtual conversation regarding life as a professional Congressional staffer.

They spoke candidly about how experienced legislative staff can greatly impact a lawmaker’s ability to be effective. Members of Congress seek to allocate their scarce staff resources carefully, given their multiple, sometimes competing objectives.

When it comes to staffing offices, there are many tough decisions to make. However, the Center for Effective Lawmaking has released research demonstrating that a targeted strategy to recruit and retain the most experienced legislative staff in Congress may pay the greatest dividends in regards to lawmaking.

Watch the entire conversation about the impactful research, which led to a memo of recommendation to the House of Representatives, with someone who knows first-hand what it means to be effective on the Hill.

Read the full paper here.

Transcript as follows:

Mike Henry (00:17):

Hey, I’m sorry I’m running late. I have this meeting that I have every week with all the chiefs, the Dems. You said 11 and it obviously ran over cause we have such challenging times right now. So—

Craig Volden (00:29):

Yes, no doubt. Well, let’s get started then. Welcome everyone. My name is Craig Volden. I’m a Professor of Public Policy and Politics at the Batten School at the University of Virginia. I also serve as the Co-Director of the Center for Effective Lawmaking, a partnership between UVA and Vanderbilt University. Today, I’m delighted to be joined by Mike Henry. Mike currently serves as Chief of Staff to US Senator Tim Kaine. He’s been active in politics and policymaking for about three decades. Having played an instrumental role in numerous electoral and legislative victories. Today, we’ll be talking about the role of experienced staff in contributing to effective lawmaking in Congress. I’ll be asking Mike a series of questions based on his experiences and expertise. For those of you joining us live, you can add to the interview by posting your questions in the Q and A area at the bottom of your screens. I’ll try to get to as many of those questions as I can throughout our time together. Welcome Mike. Thanks for taking the time to be with us today.

Mike Henry (01:31):

Thanks for having me. I’m really excited to, to our con-conversation we’re going to have and the questions you’re going to ask me and the folks that are on I’d love to hear what they have to say too. But thanks for inviting me. I’m really honored to be here.

Craig Volden (01:43):

Fantastic. To start, can you tell me about the career path that you’ve taken that’s now led you to be a chief of staff to Virginia Senator Tim Kaine?

Mike Henry (01:51):

Yeah, sure. It’s a, it’s a peculiar one. It’s a little bit different. A lot of people that work on Capitol Hill have a long history of working here on the Hill. I’m actually kind of a, I’ve only been here for about seven to eight years now. Most of my career I’ve spent working on political campaigns. So I’ve managed several Senate races, several governors races, many congressional races. And in between there, I had some experiences when I was in college. I was an intern for a congressman, which kind of got me introduced to the Hill and why, you know, it interests me now. I was a caseworker for a Senator here, a former Senator in Virginia working on casework in a regional office. And then I’ve also worked for some– an environmental group and then a poverty group for a little while. But other than that, it’s primarily been campaigns up until when Senator Kaine asked me to join him on his staff in 2012.

Craig Volden (02:54):

So the Center for Effective Lawmaking is located at the University of Virginia, as you know, and at Vanderbilt University where our students are highly interested in public service. You know, as they consider perhaps exploring some staff roles in Congress can you briefly describe the structure of a typical congressional office and what the sort of jobs they might have if they were to join?

Mike Henry (03:15):

Yeah, sure. And thanks for asking this question. You know, the way I kind of organize our office is in kind of five buckets. We have a legislative team that focuses on specifically working with the Senator on public policy. And the positions that we have there is, are the following: We have a legislative director who kind of serves as the leader and director of the entire department. We have seven to eight legislative assistants, which focus directly with the Senator. I would say they’re our key person that had their deep– in a specific issue or policy issues that the Senator works on. Now there’s a little deviation there. I have some– we’re not on Judiciary for example. So I have a lawyer who works with him on judiciary issues, but it’s what I consider, not a, it’s not a Committee of Jurisdiction. So although that work is really important to us and we focus on that a lot– like right now, what’s going on in the country. You know, our judiciary person is working on a lot of criminal justice matters on an, on a daily and hourly basis. But again, it’s not Senator Kaine’s Committee of Jurisdiction. So there’s another set of LAs that work specifically on his committee. So that’s, we’re on Armed Services, Foreign Relations, Budget, and HELP, which is the Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee. And those legislative assistants, they do have a little bit more responsibility because they have to get ready for committee hearings and they have to brief him to be more in depth on those issues. So there’s kind of a deviation there amongst LAs Committee of Jurisdiction, and then other LAs that we don’t have Committee Jurisdiction, but they’re issues that are important to Senator Kaine. Right underneath them we have our LCs, those are legislative correspondents. They work with the LAs to prepare the Senator for briefing– for hearings and also help write briefings for him. But primarily what their job is, 80 to 85% of their job is, interacting with constituents, either on the phone or through the through email kind of answering their concerns about, on different issues. And then we also have a staff assistant role, which kind of focuses a little bit more on, you know, kind of support staff here in the office. And then we do have fellows. We have three, three fellows every year that I think are a unique opportunity for people to come into the office for a short period of time and, you know, help usually the Committee of Jurisdiction folks to get their work done. We have a– so that’s the lead shot. That’s a deep dive department that has a lot of staff. Now the other thing we do have, we have a press shop that focuses specifically on press and community and communications. We also have a casework group that works primarily out of the Richmond office, where they work out on, on outreach and also casework matters. For those of you who don’t know what casework is. It’s like when you or I have an issue with the federal government, that our caseworker can work with you and kind of solve that problem. And then the last group of folks is kind of like our administrative staff that work with me to kind of run the office and manage our resources here. Both human resources and also financial.

Craig Volden (06:34):

That’s great. I really appreciate that, that overall rundown. Looks like our audience has one question kind of relevant to this. How can an individual citizen most effectively communicate an opinion on a specific topic with a Senator?

Mike Henry (06:47):

Yeah. So here, here’s how I kind of approach that. And look, there are, we get a lot of phone calls and we get, we get a lot of mail. Mostly now it’s moved to all to email. We get a few hard copy letters now where people actually wrote out the letter, but that’s starting to wane as people get more familiar with, with email. And it’s also an age thing. Older folks tend to write us, younger folks don’t. But that’s one way and look, our office takes that kind of incoming very seriously. I look at that as a data point on what’s kind of, you know, what’s on top of mind for people. So that’s one way to communicate. The other way to communicate and I think, you know, right now, because we’re dealing with COVID and the campus right now is very limp, has no access for the public, which I don’t like, but that’s kind of the situation we’re in is to, you know, people who visit us. So we have interest groups, citizens that want to come in on their own and they ask for a personal meeting either with the Senator or with staff. And, you know, we, we absorb a lot of that incoming and we, you know, we spend a lot of time on that. And in Virginia, what I always tell my staff is that, you know, “You can try to avoid someone who might have an issue that they want to talk to us about. I recommend that you don’t avoid them because here’s the thing. If, if you live in Alaska, you’re trying to get in touch with an Alaskan senator, that’s a long plane ride or a very long car trip. But in Virginia, you know, if you keep putting someone off, they’re gonna show up in our front office and they’re going to confront you one-to-one if you’re not careful.” And that’s, that’s part of what– I always look at our office is that’s really a public service that we should be. Is that being closer to the people and making sure we have those access points where they can come in and talk to us is really important. And then the last thing is Senator Kaine does travel around the state frequently. We have open forums there as well. You know, we’re on campus probably four to five times a year at UVA alone. But that kind of interaction is important too. And then we also have what we call Kaine connects around the state where staff schedule time to meet with people, either in a regional office or at a local library or a public place where people can come in and, and talk to us about what they’re dealing with.

Craig Volden (09:05):

Thanks. That’s really helpful. When we think about taking those issues, as well as the issues that the Senator you know, is just fascinated by himself, we’re interested in resolving we’re focused then mostly on the lawmaking role, certainly at the Center. We’re interested in lawmaking, although you know, oversight and other other purposes are, are, are really central there as well. How do the legislative staff really fit into kind of a deep dive in that lawmaking role? How do they bridge the relationship between senators or representatives and those constituents lobbyists experts and others?

Mike Henry (09:39):

Yeah. Look, our staff are critical to our success and here’s what I mean by that. Senator Kaine, is what I would call it, an engaged member. And I, I warned staff when they come to see us, you know, or when they come and work for us, you know, he’s well-read, he, he is always thinking about issues. It’s, it’s very common for me to have an email in the morning about something he read about in the newspaper and he wants to pursue. But the Senator [Tim Kaine] only has so much bandwidth because we’re all human. So the key here is that to build that trust between the member and the staff person, to make sure that first they kind of understand where Senator Kaine or a member comes to an issue. So for instance, Senator Kaine is this former civil rights attorney. So civil rights issues are, have been like part of his DNA for almost, I think his entire life. I didn’t know him when he was a young man. But generally you kind of know where he’s going to be on a certain issue. And then from there, it’s important that the, the, the staff kind of craft legislation and help him, you know, put things forward in the body that, you know, represent his values and kind of his interests. So that’s part of that kind of one-on-one interaction between the member, understanding where the member comes from on an issue, and then trying to look for opportunities for that person to advance really good ideas. But there’s a lot more into legislative and legislative work and lawmaking than just having a great relationship with your boss. You know, having the expertise to understand how a bill becomes a law is, you know, you can read that in a textbook, but how you practically apply that in the United States Senate is just not textbook. Like you need to know who runs the committee. You need to know the staff on the committee. You need to look for opportunities. Cause like right now I’m a member of the Democratic Party and my boss is a Democrat, so we’re not in the majority. So the majority dictates the calendar. So they’re going to make a decision what’s going to move and what’s not. And you got to have staff that understand that, okay, “Hey, this bill is actually going to move the, the party in the, in the majority, or is going to move this legislation. How can I get an amendment in that, in that package?” Now I’m kind of serving in a weird time. I mean, obviously with a pandemic, the civil rights challenges that we have, you know, it’s really a challenging time. But before all this happened, what was kind of frustrating to me is when I finally got to this role in serving Virginia and the nation and Senator Kaine is that very few things move nowadays, to be honest with you. So I know there’s two things that always move. It’s called the National Defense Authorization Act. We have a markup next week on that bill. That moves every single year. That’s a guarantee. There’s going to be– defense bills gonna move. The second thing, and we’re not great on this, but generally, you know, Appropriations is going to move at the end of the year. Now those of you who follow Congress closely, you know, we’re supposed to have that wrapped up by September 30th. Usually we do. We kick the can down the road for a couple of months. We finally get a deal maybe closer to Christmas or even sometimes it pulls into the next year. And we run the government on a CR (continuing resolution).

Craig Volden (13:37):

So you are describing some instances where in the minority party, you can still move some of your priorities. How does it play out differently in the majority or what you might hope in your case to be in the majority next year?

Mike Henry (13:50):

Yeah, I mean, look, I think what you’ll see– you know what we do, we do a lot of nominations right now, which is frustrating. We don’t do a lot of legislating. But like, I’m hopeful if we, if we get the majority back, you know, we’re going to be able to put our agenda up and, you know, I think it’ll be an exciting time to be here, you know, in January if we do get the majority back. But if I can just kind of deviate just for a minute about like, even how in the minority, how you get things done.

Craig Volden (14:19):

Yeah.

Mike Henry (14:20):

You know, look, my boss is definitely, you know, a progressive Democrat and he’s proud of being a Democrat. But he’s also very interested in kind of finding common ground. He talks frequently about, you know, here’s a member, this is their circle. This is his circle. The question is like, what part of those circles kind of interact with each other and overlap each other and maybe you can find some common ground. And I’ll give you a good example. And this is actually like a really strange, but like one of our, you know, strange story in the sense of who we were working with. But, but we had success last year. You know up until last year, you know, states could set the smoking age. You know, it couldn’t be under 18, but it could be 18 or, or somewhere between 21, but there wasn’t a national standard. And part, you know, there’s a variety of reasons for that. Some, some of us come from tobacco states like Virginia. Senator Kaine has always been pro, you know, 21 on, on that kind of age limitation. But, you know, we actually worked with Senator McConnell on this and he came to us and said, “Hey, listen to Tim. You know, we haven’t worked on much, you know, I’m from a tobacco state, you’re from a tobacco state. We’d love to work on something together with you.” And look a lot of people in our party and a lot of people, even in my office was kind of like, “Whoa, you know, why are we interacting with him?” And, you know, my kind of approach, this was like, you know why I’m going to interact with him? First of all, there are going to be some states in the country that will never change their law from 18 to 21. This is an opportunity to impact hundreds of thousands if not millions of people by working with McConnell. And the other thing is, let’s just look at the reality of this is that if Mitch McConnell decides this bill is going to move, it’s going to move. Like he’s going to put it on the calendar and we’re going to get a vote on it. And here’s a unique opportunity to work with someone who’s in a power position to get something on the calendar. And we ended up passing that last year and it was like, you know, one of our best, you know, opportunities. Now we don’t agree with Mitch on much, but that was like a unique opportunity, even in this very divisive time that we live in to get something done and it was positive. And that’s something that I’m really proud of, you know, from last year. And that’s just like one good example of like how you know– and remember, that’s not, it wasn’t just like how to, how a bill becomes a law type stuff. It was really like understanding how this place works.

Craig Volden (16:45):

Right, right, right. You know, that idea of, you know, where are there bipartisan opportunities? Often we, we in in the public think, “Yeah. It’s never happening.” And you’re suggesting that it does happen. You know, the contentiousness across party lines certainly shows up in the press. How are you finding that within the Senate itself and especially, do we see it among senators? Among staffers? Are there some staffers who, you know, aren’t interested in working across party lines or how do they overcome those, those?

Mike Henry (17:17):

Yeah, yeah. Look it’s a very good question. I’ve thought about this a lot over the years You know, what’s frustrating about this– look, I love my job, I love working here and I’m very fortunate to be here. But you know, there are some staff that I will say that the member probably gives them a little bit too much influence about what goes on and what doesn’t go on. And it’s frustrating when you deal with that. Cause there are times like– here’s how I kind of approach things. When Tim Kaine says, “Hey, this is the way it’s going to be on this piece of legislation” or “This is what I want” or “This is what I’ve agreed to” or “Here’s what I’ve given given to them. But this is what we’ve got, what we’ve received from this deal.” You know, I kind of look at it– hey, conversation’s over now. It’s time just to implement and get this thing done and get a vote on it. But you know, I have run into situations where, you know, staff has started to roll things back and say, “Oh, well, that’s not what we agreed to.” And you know, it’s frustrating. So, you know I– look, you’re never going to take politics completely out of legislative, you know, legislative creation. But you know, we could dial it back here a little bit. And for me coming from a political space until I got here, you know, I think people, if they just dial the politics back 25% or so, we could get a lot more done, but it can be challenging at times. And you know, it does piss me off sometimes to be honest with you.

Craig Volden (18:48):

Sure, sure. Yeah. Another challenge a lot of scholars and interested parties have been pointing to is, is the revolving door nature of congressional staff service. Kind of the staff members don’t typically serve for very long, many are drawn away from Congress to serve as lobbyists or in other more lucrative roles. How much of an issue are these concerns from your perspective?

Mike Henry (19:09):

It’s concerning. Look, I’ve been in the Senate now since 12, so I’m coming on eight years now. You know and I’m one of the older people now. I had a colleague that worked with me in the first six years of Senator Kaine’s time here, was my legislative director. She was a 25, a year of the center for 25 years and she just recently retired. And, you know, Mary was a really good colleague of mine, a good ally of mine. But the reason why we were a good team is that, you know, I had, I had very little Senate experience when I took this job. She had 20 something years at that point of Senate experience and she taught me a lot. So now I’m able to, you know, to to what I, what I learned from her and kind of implement it now and, and apply it now. But I think more and more, what you’re seeing is, you know, for people to really achieve their own personal financial goals. And, and Mary had a very great career and she’s out doing something else now that she likes to do. But when people only are here for five to six years and then they go downtown, it does, it does take a little bit of the institutional experience that is really critical to this place. And what you’re seeing right now in the Senate is, you know, there’s some reforms that have happened recently about judges, about Supreme Court nominees that, you know, we’re starting to erode kind of the, the, the rules that have been in place for the Senate for a reason to bring people together, to find consensus. And we’re starting to get away from that. And I think part of that is the member’s fault but a lot of it also is the staff have, you know, they have to take some responsibility in this. And when we don’t have someone who can go back and say, “Hey,” you know, “10 years ago, or 15 years ago, this is the reason why we had this rule in place and why we shouldn’t change.” And that’s one part. And then the other part is, like I said earlier, you know, the relationships on the Hill matters. Like Mary could call up anybody. You know, she knew all the folks in the Senate and had that Rolodex. And when someone leaves to go downtown, that’s great for the interest group that they’re going to work for or the lobbying group that they’re going to work for. But it’s not that great for here because we’re losing that kind of, you know, those connections that help this place run.

Craig Volden (21:35):

Yeah. Going back to our audience questions, there’s one here that’s kind of linked to some of those challenges. What parts of your job do you find most challenging and why?

Mike Henry (21:46):

Yeah. You know, the chief of staff role is an interesting role and I, again, very fortunate to have it. But what’s challenging with my job is to set, you know, set goals that the Senator wants to reach legislatively also in how we’re going to communicate that to people. But my job that, you know, it takes up a lot of my time when people don’t realize is yes, I serve as an advisor to Senator Kaine. Yes, I work with my team to get his legislative goals accomplished or communicated properly. But, you know, I spend a lot of my time on the blocking and tackling of management and that is, you know, making sure we pay the bills, making sure, you know, we have hired the right people. You know, in any kind of organization you’re always going to have disagreements with folks and trying to mediate and be part of that. But you know, a lot of human relations, I spent a lot of time on, you know, managing my staff and you know, that that’s fun and I enjoy it, but you know it’s not that glamorous all the time. And, you know, sometimes I wish I could spend a little bit more time on the deep dive on legislation than I can, but I, you know, that’s not what my role is.

Craig Volden (22:57):

Yeah. You were talking about some members who give a lot of delegation to their staff you know, just kind of run with it, do what you think is best and others that you know, are more directive. I don’t know if that goes into the micromanaging category as well. Yeah. How do you think about, you know, the right amount of, of discretion to give to staff?

Mike Henry (23:21):

Yeah. And, and look, I can only talk, speak to my experience and kind of how I do it. But look, what I, what I always try to do is the people that are on my legislative team, I want them to be the experts on the subject matter. So, you know, I give them a lot of leeway. And Senator Kaine does to a certain extent. Now, look, I, I mentioned it early and earlier and I think anybody who’s in public life– you know, and many of you, I think are thinking about careers you know, either in the executive or other or the legislative branch. You know, your boss is always going to set the kind of parameters and the standard, and then you need to go with, to them with the options. And that could be, you know, here’s something that’s perfect and this is everything you want, but it’s going to be unlikely to move. So we have to, you know, maybe deviate slightly and here’s some things you could give away. But I really do allow our staff to kind of drive that because, you know, I’m never going to become an expert on, you know, a military issue. Like I, like my military LA can or my judiciary person or my budget person or my, you know, appropriations person. And you really want them to be the expert inside, give them a lot of space on that. And Senator Kaine does too. But you know, like when we get into hiring processes, I do tell people like, “Look, you know, let’s say you think this is the perfect thing. And Senator Kaine says, ‘Hey, I really appreciate all the work you did, but I’m going to go this way instead of this way.’ You know, how’s that gonna make you feel?”

Craig Volden (25:18):

Yeah. Now some of the research that we’re doing in the Center for Effective Lawmaking is suggesting that having even one very experienced legislative staffer who’s spent a lot of time on Capitol Hill, dramatically improves the lawmaking effectiveness of members of Congress. And that that effect is strongest for new members. What do you see as the struggles that newly elected senators and representatives face and how can staff help them overcome those challenges?

Mike Henry (25:44):

Yeah. So Mary is a great example. My former colleague. She was a perfect fit for us. She avoided, we avoided so many pitfalls like those first couple of years where we just kind of understanding, you know, the Senate and how things happen around here and why things happen around here. So, you know, we really benefited from having a veteran like, like Mary to help us for, you know, for the first six years. And like I said, she then also trained me well. And she also, you know, I still have many members of my legislative team that she hired and, you know, her experience was passed on to them. So your, the point you made is very important. And I encourage the new members, you know, sometimes they’ll call me and ask me like what I think and how you should, how you should do it. I do recommend that. Now here’s what generally happens though. You know, people usually come to the body, either in the Senate or in the House, with, you know, people from other– you know, things that they worked on so for instance. But you usually add, you have a campaign that you were you’re, you’re loyal to, you’re proud of they, they got you here to, to serve in the House or the Senate and they bring a lot of campaign staff on. This is kind of interesting because I am a campaign person, right. That’s kind of what Senator Kaine did for me. But my point is is that, you know, you can bring some of your congressional staff on, I think that’s perfectly fine. But you got to limit that. So if you bring everybody from the campaign to here, here’s what’s generally going to happen, in about six months there’s going to be a lot of turnover because there’s going to be things that they just don’t understand. And here’s the other thing. Campaign people tend to not like the work that we do up here. And so they they’ve been trained differently. They have different interests. And it’s a, it hurts the effectiveness of your camp– of your office. So my best advice is, you know, bring a third of your people with you and put them in roles that, you know, that are similar to how a campaign works. But what you really want is for your leg team to be– have experience to understand, you know, how we move legislation up here and how the system works and try to really hire top notch legislative people. Because at the end of the day, that’s what you’re going to be judged on, you know, as a member in the House or the Senate. But I see a lot of mistakes like that happening and then you see some major turnover and, you know, it’s usually predictable.

Craig Volden (28:22):

Yeah. We, we really are enjoying this conversation. We’re getting a lot of Q and A now. So I’m going to turn to a bunch of those. It seems like the, these conversations are resonating with people. One of the questions is, do you have suggestions for how members might better retain those experienced staff?

Mike Henry (28:39):

Yeah, here’s what we do here. And again, I can’t speak to every office, but you know, I really try to hire people that are we and not me. So I spend a lot of time, you know, in the interview process, you know, we, we, we, we make sure that you know your topics, your subject matter and, you know, make sure you can write and that kind of stuff. But I focus a lot of my attention on, are you going to be a good member of our team? And I think, you know, what you have to do to retain people is, you know, treat people well, be very clear about what their responsibilities are, how they fit into the, to the team. But you know, campaigns and also, you know, legislative offices they sometimes they attract people that are a little bit more I than we, and that’s what I try to avoid here. So I really try to find the right fit for everybody. Now, here’s the other thing you need to be– well I’ll be up front with everybody on, on the video conference right now is that, look, you’re not going to be rich, you know, working for a United States Senator or House member or a governor or a member of the state legislature, or whatever you, wherever you want to go. This is not– you don’t come here to obtain wealth. You gotta come here with like, you know, with a servant heart and that you want to be a public servant. And I do try to also, you know, encourage people to add. So like, I’m never going to compete with, with a, a salary downtown. Like that’s ridiculous. You know, they– people can walk out the door tomorrow and mean twice as much as they, or maybe even three times as much as they make here. So I’m just very upfront about that and honest. And, and look, I also encourage my staff, like, look, let me know, like what you’re dealing with in your life. Like, you know, I want to be an asset for you to try to help you reach your professional goals, whether they’re here in this office or in other offices or even downtown. So I try to encourage people. But when you, when you’re first starting out, you know, this is about, you know, public service. And unfortunately that’s, that doesn’t mean you’re going to have the largest paycheck in the neighborhood you know.

Craig Volden (30:48):

Yeah, yeah. It looks like another question is interested in this idea about delegation and, and that concept of, you know, you seem to know or can hear stories of those who are delegating a lot to their their staff, giving them a lot of discretion to move things forward and so on. If we, as scholars, were interested in detecting that would we see different patterns for those who delegate to their staff a lot versus those who, you know, have staff who are really attuned to the, to the member?

Mike Henry (31:26):

It’s hard. You know, part of also confidentiality and working with your staff and you would probably have to be in the bottle to, to, to pick up on that. I don’t think we’d see that just, you know, from the outside looking in.

Craig Volden (31:43):

Yeah. One other question here. Do all senators have the same size staff? If a, if not, how, how is that determined?

Mike Henry (31:52):

Sure. Great question. So, we all have a stipend that is assigned to us from you know, from the federal government to run our offices. There are what you can– there are states that we call big states, like they’re big. Texas, New York, California. They will get, they will have larger staffs. And part of that is because they have more regional offices, they need to have a larger state staff to kind of deal with the case workload that’s coming in. So yeah, and, and the way that’s calculated is, a believe it or not, you know, distance from the Capitol, population. And that’s how you receive more resources to, to interact with your state and with your constituents. So, yeah, I mean, you know, Virginia is kind of medium. So and we’re very close. So the travel is different and the costs that we have to accrue are different. So we have smaller staff, but generally my staff is basically like 48 to 52 people at any given time with the fellows that come in. But you’ll see New York and Texas and California will be slightly larger in the 60, 65, even 70 range.

Craig Volden (33:11):

Right. Any differences when you’re in the minority or majority party? It seems like you were saying those rules are a little bit different.

Mike Henry (33:18):

They are, but, you know there– you get the same amount of staff whether you are in the majority are minority. I mean, there, there’s a case to be made that the offices are a little bit better when you’re in the majority, in the leadership. Like it doesn’t change here. This is all based on seniority, the offices that you get now. But, you know, they’re working in the speaker’s office is better than working in a member’s office for sure.

Craig Volden (33:43):

I’m turning to a couple of contemporary issues that we’re all thinking about. So obviously the whole world is confronting this strange new reality and the current pandemic. How’s it affecting the work of Congress and the role of congressional staff or people working from home? Are they working in the office? What precautions are being taken? How does all of this affect the important role that Congress should and is doing during the crisis?

Mike Henry (34:04):

Yeah. Great question. It’s been a fascinating time to work here. So right now, our– again, one of the things, this is the best way to explain this thing. Remember, all the members of the Senate– we’re all small business owners basically. So we, we run our offices the way we want to run our offices and that’s– but there’s no standard across the way. I will say that generally the Democrats are a little bit more teleworking. I would honestly say that there are some other Republican opposites that are a little bit more haven’t changed that much. But that it’s, it’s definitely that the pandemic has impacted us in major ways and put challenges in front of us that we’ve never had to deal with. At least for a very long time. So how my office is being run right now, I’m in my office right now. This is my, you know, where I worked in the Senate. But we have closed our office and we are a hundred percent teleworking. Now, the only difference, the only adjustment to that is, is that I do come in and staff the Senator [Tim Kaine] when we have votes. So for instance, right now the Senate votes Monday night is usually the first vote and the last vote is Thursday afternoon. So I will come in around one or two, prepare for him to come in. He’ll vote, he’ll go home. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, I come in basically normal hours and I work with him on making sure we get him to votes, to committee hearings and what have you. I came in today cause I have a better camera here to work with you guys.

Craig Volden (35:42):

Thank you. I appreciate that.

Mike Henry (35:42):

So, but, but right now it’s one person who comes in and staffs him when we, when we have votes. When we’re in recess, I will be working a hundred percent, you know, teleworking like everybody else on my team. And, and look, it’s been a really an amazing experience. First of all, we had to change– there was no rule book for this. There was no like, “Oh, here’s the book. Here’s how you do it.” You know, there wasn’t– we had to like craft our plan and implement it within 24 hours of having everybody work remotely. I didn’t know how it was going to end up, but I will tell you, I’m very proud of everybody I work with. Our efficiency, our ability to interact with constituents, our ability to move legislation has not been encumbered at all. And it’s, it’s really been a testament to like the people I work with. They’ve really figured out how to work remotely, do everything over the phone or through video conference. I think there’s a little bit of you know, you kinda miss your colleagues and, you know, it’s a, it’s a lonely existence at times. But they’ve really done a great job and I’ve not seen any dip in, you know, responsive time to constituents. I haven’t seen any responsive time dip with what things that Tim Kaine needs. We have to do things differently. He has to be a little bit more self sufficient and understanding how to turn Zoom on and everything like that. But we’ve done a really good job. And you know, I care about their wellbeing and their health. So I want to, you know, I don’t, I’m not rushing to get back to the way it was right now. I want to make sure everybody’s safe. And even though we had to turn on a dime and immediately implement teleworking, I, I’m pretty certain my, my posture on this is going to be– we’re going to ease back in to working in the office once things get a little bit back to normal.

Craig Volden (37:51):

Do you have a sense on any timeline for that or…

Mike Henry (37:54):

Yeah, I mean, that’s a great answer. People were asking me on my staff call today. You know, we, we were going to file the state rules, which was basically, you know, a stay at home until June 10th. I’m going to move that out another week. And I think what we’re going to end up happening here is that– it’s hard. I wish I could take the camera around and show you like, kind a situation is. But we in, in Russell in the Russell Office Building you know, it’s kind of old school. So we have three offices that were three buildings here in Dirksen, Hart and Russell. Russell was the first one built. So it’s very much like a typical government building. I cram in like, you know, in one office room, I may have seven staffers there. And there’s no way to effectively have six feet. And, you know so we’re going to have to do some sort of, you know, maybe this group of people work on this week and then the following week they’ll take off or they’ll work from home. And then the new group will come in. There’s no way that in Russell, I can have everybody here and still keep everybody safe. So we’re likely to have a staggered approach in the future.

Craig Volden (39:02):

Would there be a testing regime, et cetera, that you would have?

Mike Henry (39:06):

You know, I haven’t figured that out yet because, you know, they’ve given us, you know, masks and, and hand sanitizer and stuff. But I don’t know if there’s a budget for me to like, you know, have thermometors here and test people. And I, and I definitely right now don’t have access to tests. So I think I probably would have to get my own thermometers, which I could, and then go from there for at least see if someone has a fever. But it’s but no, there are not like—

Craig Volden (39:34):

So there’s no organized Senate wide or congressional wide, a response along those lines here. You’re on your own, like any small business?

Mike Henry (39:41):

And, you know, look, I think it’s probably slightly better than a small business cause I could, you know, focus on that and push maybe the opposite of the attending physician to figure this out. But no, we have not been given like, “Oh, here’s, you know, 150 tests that you guys can take to make sure.” And yeah.

Craig Volden (39:59):

Yeah. Another contemporary issue. We’re all struggling with the rioting racial disparities in policing and health access and outcomes and who is being hit by the economic hardships. Do you think Congress and its staff are well equipped to handle those sorts of concerns as well?

Mike Henry (40:18):

Look, I think we’re all human. So, you know, our, you know, our office specifically, I think, you know, we, we look out for each other. And we’re trying to, you know, make sure people have avenues to communicate with either their team or their leadership, the people they directly report to, but it’s a very challenging time. You know, or are we thinking about– you know, one thing that we have and maybe the general public doesn’t have is that, you know, we have an outlet to legislate and to change things through legislation. And I do think there is a, there is some therapeutic grounding for that a little bit. That you feel like you can make a difference because we can change the laws here. But no, you know, we’re, we’re dealing with this time in real time, just like everybody else is. And you know, in time of isolation and not being able to, you know, hang out with a friend and just, you know, connect like normal human beings instead of through a phone or through a conference like this, you know, it’s hard. But my team is doing well. But you know, we’re, we’re, we’re very similar to what you guys are dealing with. I do think that outlet of, hey, you know, we’re working on a bill right now with Senator Booker to fix this is helpful to us because we can see that there’s opportunity for progress.

Craig Volden (41:51):

Thanks. Some of our research and research of other scholars have suggested that underrepresented minorities and women as congressional staff are less likely to be promoted and that they receive lower pay. In some ways that kind of reflects some of the patterns in the American workforce more generally. But is there anything specific to Congress that might help us understand those sorts of patterns?

Mike Henry (42:11):

Yeah. Look, I think as your, your member and then your chief of staff and then your, your kind of direct report, which would be my leadership team who run the departments with me. But we, we have to be held accountable to make sure that we don’t fall into those traps. And, you know, I spend a great deal of time thinking about, you know, the, the diversity that we have in an office. And I also, you know, I spend a lot of time focusing on, you know, salary range and making sure things are done fairly. But you know, we have a lot, a lot of, a lot of work to do in Capitol Hill and it’s hard. And you know, in the Senate specifically, this is a very Caucasian operation and it, that’s another thing that pisses me off a lot. And I have to spend a lot of time, you know, looking for talent and finding people to encourage them to come here and work here. But we have a long way to go. And, and you guys can see the numbers on that about not only the membership, the makeup of the body itself, but also staffing. But I am proud of our numbers of the, you know, we have a very diverse staff. And you know, it’s a, it’s a goal of Senator Kaine’s and it’s a goal of mine to make sure we maintain that.

Craig Volden (43:36):

Yeah. What is some things specifically that you do to achieve more success on those fronts?

Mike Henry (43:41):

Well, look, you know here’s, what’s happened in the past and why you have such a, it’s hard to break in here. I mean, when, when, when there’s a vacancy that happens on staff, right? If you don’t have the pipeline of diverse candidates completely from the staff assistant to the cheapest staff. If you don’t have that pipeline already put in place, usually when a vacancy happens, you’re like, “Holy cow, I need this LC right now to, you know, to, to cover this body of work. Cause we’re in the middle of a markup and I need help right away.” What you do is you immediately look to the person who’s in your office, maybe further down the chain and try to pull them up. But if you don’t, if you don’t have diversity in those ranks, you’re just going to naturally pull from who is ever there. So that’s one, you know, pitfall. So I, I really don’t do that. Like we always open up our opportunities and try to see who else is out there. And then also, you know, making sure you have managers that are diverse as well, that, you know, are watching this a hundred percent and, you know, making sure, you know, from whatever walks of life that you come from, that, hey, this is a great place to work and you should, you know, you should do it. And encourage people to enter public service. And, you know, that’s, you, you just, you can never take off from it. You gotta be working on it 24/7, every single day.

Craig Volden (45:03):

Yeah. Yeah. Now on the House side, the Selection Committee on the Modernization of Congress has been considering these sorts of issues. Staff pay a variety of other reforms on the Senate side or for the Congress as a whole. Are there reforms that are needed generically to make the institution function better? Whether those have to do with staff or other considerations. What’s, what’s your ideal work in Congress today? Again, that’s your ideal for a working Congress today?

Mike Henry (45:31):

Yeah. That’s a tough question. On reforms, you know– look, the way I look at kind of the, the brain drain of people who leave the Hill and go on and do other things. I mean, you know, higher salaries would be, it would be great would be helpful. But you’re still not going to be able to compete financially, even if you did boost everything up a little bit. So I think we have to like keep that in mind, you know, people need to come here, you know, with, with patriotism and thinking about like, “Hey, I want to be a public servant.” And, you know, trying to maintain, you know, upward trajectory so they can reach their goals and do things, you know, in, in the public sector. But you know, it’s hard for me right now to rattle off like just a series of reforms, you know. But, you know, but look, if you guys come up with some good ideas, I’m definitely interested in looking at them. And look the Senate is a very, you know, ancient place. I mean, it’s, it’s, we, we move very slowly here. So sometimes that’s good, sometimes that’s bad. But I like it to be a little bit more, you know, more dynamic and changing more. I certainly would, but there’s the way the rules are set up right now, it does prohibit you sometimes from doing things.

Craig Volden (47:00):

Yeah. It looks like we, aren’t going to be able to get to all of the Q and A, but I do want to bring in a bunch more before our time is up. So here’s one. What are the differences between staff who worked for a specific senator and the staff who work on a committee?

Mike Henry (47:17):

Yeah. So you know the difference primarily is that you’ll see people who worked on the committee are– you remember, I talked a little bit about, you know, Committees of Jurisdiction and then staff that are kind of working on issues that are important to the center, but not in a committee. You’re going to get a deep dive if you’re working on, you know, in the Foreign Relations Committee. And, and for instance, and not only do you just work on foreign relations, you’re going to have expertise in a specific region of the world. So it’s, well, the work that we do here at times can be very specific. It’s still very broad. But when you get into the discipline of, you know, working in a, on a committee, you get a deep dive and even, you know, sectors of that, that, that issue. And then look, the other exciting thing about working on a committee is, you know, you– if you are into healthcare and you’re on the Health Committee staff, you know, you could really make a difference on moving legislation. Cause now you’re working with the chair and the ranking staff and the chair of the committee and the ranking person from the other, from the other party to really move things. So you’re, you know, you get into the deep dive and it’s really exciting because you can move legislation. You know, we’re– a senator who is not, who’s on a committee can still impact it. But the committee staff really is where, you know, the, the legislation gets drafted, worked on, where the deals are done, where the give and take is. And, you know, I’ve never personally worked there, but, you know, I think it would be very exciting and it would be worth doing.

Craig Volden (48:55):

Great. A question here about outside advocacy and lobbyists. How skeptical are you of the points that advocates, advocates, and lobbyists bring to you? Is that typically a good partnership? How can you gain confidence that a they’re kind of telling you the truth and that it’s a position that the Senator should be supporting?

Mike Henry (49:17):

Yeah, great question. You know, I– advocacy and advocacy is really important to our system. So I welcome it and I think it’s good. Now, there are some, you know, there are some lobbyists and some interest groups that we may not agree with in general, and there’s some conflict there occasionally. But it’s really important that every office allows that advocacy to happen. Now, you know, I always tell my staff and the way I approach it is like, look, we should entertain almost every, every– you know, person who comes our office who’s interested in petitioning their government and making a case on why their position is the right position to support. But so we get to listen, but at the end of the day, we have to listen and take that information, you know, analyze it and decide if it’s the right information now. And that’s on us. And you know, but having people come in and talk to us, whether are a paid lobbyist or, you know, volunteer advocacy group, you know, it’s important for our system to have that kind of outside pressure. But as a public servant and somebody you’re working with a senator or a House member, you know, you’ve got to analyze it yourself and decide if this is important or not. And then also like sometimes have– people have an argument and half their argument is good, the other half isn’t. So you want to just kind of try to advance, you know, parts of their agenda. But I like, I’m a, I’m still excited about that. And that’s a really important part of the system here. It can be frustrating because, you know, people really are aggressive, but that’s, you know, that’s why we’re here, you know? I mean, that’s, you know, you can’t complain about that.

Craig Volden (51:05):

Right. Sure. In terms of the expertise of staff, you were saying, you know, some are dedicated to healthcare and so on. Where did they get that expertise? Is it before they arrive? How do they cultivate it and build it across their time in Congress and serving as a staff member?

Mike Henry (51:22):

Sure. So if you’re just starting out, yes. If you are really interested in foreign relations, health policy, judiciary work, civil rights, environment, you know, getting an understanding of those issues while you’re, you know, in college is very, very helpful and it’s a good way to star., But here’s the one thing that is really important and I always like to say this to groups like this is like, you know, your writing skills are critical. So as you’re preparing to kind of move into a legislative role, or you want to start your public service career, you have time right now in college. If you have time right now in college to improve your writing skills, you should. Because this place, and especially in Tim Kaine’s office, writing for him is really important because you’re not going to always have the time, like I’m different. I can go in and say, “Hey Tim, here’s what I think okay.” And he, and that’s our relationship, but there are some staffers who have that as well. But a lot of times you got to say, “Hey, here’s a piece of paper, read it.” Cause he has, he’s really moving really quick. So being able to articulate your point, you know, concisely, accurately and give him some options on a piece of paper is really important still or an email. So I just want you to remember that you’re– as much as it’s important for you to get some sort of base understanding of a different issue or so, being able to write well is really, really important. So please, if you have, if you’re a junior, sophomore, you know, work on your writing skills, improve your writing skills because that’ll help you get a job.

Craig Volden (53:03):

Love to hear that because of what we’re asking our students to do time and time again, and hearing it from your side is going to reinforce that. One more question here. Maybe somebody who’s looking for a job. What can I do to stand out in an application or as an, a good intern or a staff applicant?

Mike Henry (53:23):

Sure. So getting some experience is important. And look, that experience can be getting internship up here or, you know, other legislative experiences that you’ve had in the state legislature or city council or local government, all that counts. And look, it’s challenging. And, and I’m going to tell you something, you need to network. Like trying to get your first job on the Hill or trying to get an internship, you know, networking with people. So who else works on the Hill that went to UVA for instance. You know, there’s a very active alumni group up here that you can tap into and you gotta kind of build those networks. This place can be clubby at times. And what I mean by that is, you know, hey, I know somebody and that’s a way for you to get a job or an opportunity. But it’s not like that all the time and you’ve got to just like really think about your strategy. Here, here’s one other thing that’s important, have a broad approach to your, to your search. I know that people will say, “Hey, I have to work for this one person.” And I appreciate that but remember that one office only has 50 jobs and, you know, 40 of them, you’re not even qualified to have yet. So you, you, you, and the other thing is we’re not like Google or Facebook where, “Oh, I’m going to build out 30% more capacity in my foreign relations team this year.” Generally someone has to move out before you move in. So in order to compete for these jobs, you got to build out your network of people who are willing to help you. And I’m one of those people who are willing to help you. But you gotta think about a broad approach. Get your first opportunity in the, in the Senate or in the House and do the best job you possibly can. And then a year later leapfrog to the next job, whether it’s an LC or an LA position, but, you know, don’t, you, you’re going to have to build up some experience in order to get that, that really great job, or that really great number that you’ve been excited about for years.

Craig Volden (55:23):

Right. I’d love to get to more questions, but I’m also sensitive of the important work you’re doing and, and your time there. So thanks so much for sharing your insights and expertise with us Mike. Really appreciate it.

Mike Henry (55:33):

No problem. Really thanks for the opportunity. And if I’m going to say one last thing—

Craig Volden (55:37):

Absolutely.

Mike Henry (55:37):

Is everybody, it is so important if you’re into public service that you do it now. You’re young, you’re getting, you’re just getting started in your career. A lot of times because of these, you know, the, the pay scale here is you’re not going to be able to come back at it when you’re my age, when you have kids and you have a mortgage and stuff. But getting into public service right now, with your first start now is a real opportunity for you and you should try to do that now. Don’t wait. And then the last thing is, we need good people from all walks of life and from every party. And I just hope that with the challenges that we’re facing in this country, your generation is going to be the one that’s going to get us out of it. So I really hope you like continue to pursue your dreams and get involved as much as you can right now, because the country desperately needs, you know, new young people to come on and start serving in a public service form, format. So thanks.

Craig Volden (56:36):

Great close, good close for that. And thanks to all of those of you who have joined us live with your questions and who are watching this video. If you want to learn more about the Center for Effective Lawmaking or how effective your members of Congress have been as lawmakers, or even to explore ways to contribute to the center’s mission, please visit our website, www.thelawmakers.org. Thanks again, Mike, and thanks for everyone for joining us today.

Mike Henry (57:01):

See you guys. Bye.

Craig Volden (57:03):

Bye

Music (57:26):

[music playing]

 

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