Congress Is a Hostile Workplace

A fellow representative accosted the New York Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—the latest example of behavior on Capitol Hill that wouldn’t be tolerated elsewhere.

Chip Somodevilla / Getty

You think your job sucks?

Imagine going to work every day at an office where about half of your colleagues think you’re not just bad at what you do, but that you’re trying to destroy the whole enterprise. In fact, they spend much of their time at work denigrating you to other colleagues, tweeting nasty things about you, and trash-talking you to the media. They even publicly try to get you fired.

By the way, you have to reapply every other year just to keep your job, which means that when you’re not dealing with your antagonistic colleagues, you’re calling everyone you know and many people you don’t, asking them to send you money. Even though that’s effectively part of your job, you’re not allowed to do it at the office—you’ve got to go somewhere else and do it on your own time.

That might make you complain that you’re being made to take your work home with you. But, conversely, you also have colleagues who literally sleep in their office. Arrive at work too early, and you might see them shambling down the hall in their boxer shorts.

If someone is rude or uncooperative or cruel or harasses you, good luck finding someone to deal with that. There’s no HR department, and there aren’t even really bosses—at least not in the traditional sense of managers. Other than in the two-year reapplication process, practically no one can be fired, unless their behavior is once-in-a-century egregious.

But hey, you do get a nice lapel pin and the privilege of riding in a special elevator. Welcome to Congress!

Yesterday, a reporter for The Hill witnessed a tense exchange between Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the rising star of an insurgent progressive movement in the House, and Representative Ted Yoho, a departing star of an insurgent conservative one. Yoho reportedly accosted Ocasio-Cortez over comments she had made, saying that a spike in crime in New York was related to economic desperation.

Yoho told Ocasio-Cortez that she was “disgusting” and “out of [her] freaking mind.” Ocasio-Cortez replied that Yoho was “rude.” (Fact-check: True.) She later tweeted that another GOP congressman present snapped at her as well. As he walked away, Yoho muttered, “Fucking bitch.” This wasn’t just a flare-up of a long-running tiff between two colleagues either: Ocasio-Cortez said she’d never met the Floridian before. (In a statement to The Daily Caller, Yoho’s office disputed The Hill’s account, saying that “he made a brief comment to himself as he walked away summarizing what he believes her polices [sic] to be: bullshit.”)

There’s an obsolete but persistent idea that when members of Congress aren’t on the House or Senate floor, they’re rubbing elbows at clubby parties in Georgetown. Even before COVID-19, that wasn’t true. Mostly, they spend their time trying to destroy people they work with.

Yoho’s misogynistic outburst is particularly egregious, from a particularly outlandish member, but examples of tense encounters and obnoxious behavior in Congress are common. Just last month, the Texan and asparagus enthusiast Louie Gohmert started banging on a desk like a petulant child to try to drown out a witness with whom he disagreed. A week before that, Florida’s Matt Gaetz screamed at Louisiana’s Cedric Richmond. In 2019, the late Elijah Cummings had to mediate a dispute between Rashida Tlaib and Mark Meadows, whom she had called a racist. Lest anyone believe this is merely standard Democrat-versus-Republican stuff, Gaetz tweeted (while I was writing this article) his demand that Liz Cheney be ousted from the Republican leadership, following a tense caucus meeting this morning.

I’m surely omitting some glaring recent cases, because there are so many, which is exactly the point. Underneath the formal, protocol-required honorific addresses—“the gentlelady from Alaska,” “the gentleman from Wyoming,” and so on, often delivered with a facetious tone—Congress is a hostile workplace. Many of the behaviors that our elected representatives display regularly on Capitol Hill would get them scolded at best and marched out by security at worst if they held the same kinds of jobs as most of their constituents.

Most jobs aren’t like being in the House or the Senate, though. Most people work in essentially bureaucratic institutions: You’re hired to do a job, there’s a hierarchy in place, and you can get promoted or fired or transferred based on your performance and interactions. But Congress is democratic, with members elected by the popular vote. For governing purposes, that’s a good thing. Few of us want to be ruled by bureaucrats (though many Americans already feel that we are).

For working-environment purposes, that’s less salubrious. Members have a boss, in the sense that they’re accountable to voters, but no one is supervising them on a day-to-day basis. Leaders in each party can set priorities and steer legislation, but their power over individual members is limited. (Just ask the past two Republican speakers of the House, John Boehner and Paul Ryan, who both retired after being hounded by caucus insurrectionists.) Members really only have to face accountability every two years, and even then voters don’t necessarily grade them on their performance in Washington: Maybe the other guy is worse. Maybe the other guy disagrees with voters on policy. Maybe voters are just as happy with some cussed old bastard haranguing his colleagues. And while no serious person would suggest jettisoning democratic accountability for members, a miserable environment in Congress risks scaring off good leaders and producing a kakistocracy.

The good news is that it has not always been thus. The bad news is that it has been even worse. The story of the abolitionist Charles Sumner’s caning in the Senate chamber by his pro-slavery colleague Preston Brooks is relatively well known, but as the historian Joanne Freeman has written, it was only the most glaring of many violent episodes in the pre–Civil War Congress. The Ohio abolitionist Joshua Giddings was beaten at least seven times in barely two decades in the House, and had a pistol pulled on him during a floor speech. Duels were fought away from the Capitol, but the threat of violence inside increased too: “By the late 1850s, most congressmen were armed; as early as 1850, some congressmen guessed that roughly 30 percent of the House carried weapons, and those numbers increased over the course of that eventful decade.”

Over time, relations in Congress got better. Then they got worse again—though, thankfully, not that bad, at least not yet. Theories for why abound. Maybe cheap and speedy air travel means that members spend less time in Washington than they used to, which means that they socialize and know one another less, making them less collegial. Or maybe, as my colleague McKay Coppins wrote in 2018, it’s former Speaker Newt Gingrich’s fault, for poisoning how Congress works. Maybe it’s just a reflection of an angrier and more polarized country. Maybe it’s that new forms of media have made performative gestures—such as sleeping in your office to save taxpayer money, rather than renting an apartment—more appealing to members, just as the telegraph exacerbated antebellum tensions.

The idea that Congress is a hostile workplace isn’t entirely new. In a 2017 letter, members of the Congressional Black Caucus said that the specter of groggy members walking half-dressed in office buildings was “contributing to a hostile work environment.”

In an ordinary workplace, partially dressed employees might be referred to the human-resources department of a company, but Congress doesn’t have that. Instead, it self-polices—at least in theory. The House, like the Senate, has its own ethics committee, which is where that letter was sent. The House also has an independent office that investigates and makes referrals to the ethics committee. The ethics committee can recommend disciplinary actions such as censure and expulsion to the full chamber. Naturally, that means that, in practice, a disciplinary vote is a popularity contest or a partisan battle, and that it’s extremely hard for a member to get seriously punished. In fact, excluding cases related to Confederate secession, only three members have ever been expelled for misconduct, and one of those was in 1797. (Other members have resigned amid scandals.) This constitutes de facto near-immunity from firing.

The worst victims of this impunity are staffers. In addition to its other problems, Congress is an institution that runs on deference. (Remember the special elevator?) Young people arrive from around the country, eager to make their way in politics, which means finding favor from powerful people. They’re susceptible to overwork, verbal abuse, humiliation, and especially sexual harassment. As became clear during a fleeting 2017 reckoning over members harassing staffers, workers have little protection, since there’s no HR department; many victims are simply paid off, on the taxpayers’ dime, without any public knowledge—which only makes it harder for voters to hold their representatives accountable.

Just because the position of staffers is worse doesn’t mean that the situation is acceptable for members of Congress, though. Politics ain’t, as they say, beanbag, and an elected official has to be able to take a rhetorical punch, though hopefully not a literal one. The issues at stake in Washington are often of vital importance to the entire nation, and representatives should be passionate and engaged. But they are also just that: representatives, and there’s no reason they should engage in behavior that would get any of their constituents fired or reprimanded.