Hiding knives from a member of Congress for fear of your own life. Having cellphones thrown at you. Being cursed at in front of your parents. Being told, “I’m a queen, and I demand to be treated like one.”
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Texas Democrat, has a reputation as one of the toughest taskmasters in Congress to have as a boss, and the numbers appear to justify it.
The Washington Times analyzed a decade of congressional pay records to find the offices with the highest turnover rates and found 27 members who — over a period of four or more years — lost an annual average of at least one-third of their staff who sought calmer pastures or were fired.
Each year, an average of half of Mrs. Jackson Lee’s staff quits, and one year, all but six of 23 staffers left.
Mona Floyd, who served as the congresswoman’s legislative director, has monocular vision and has a lawsuit pending against Mrs. Jackson Lee, who was voted the “meanest member” of the House in a bipartisan survey of Hill staffers by Washingtonian magazine last year. Ms. Floyd said she was told by the representative, “I don’t care anything about your disability.”
Other incidents, including a series of racially charged diatribes, were documented by the Washington-based Daily Caller website after former aides were so taken aback by her behavior that they broke an unspoken Capitol Hill rule not to speak ill of former bosses.
Eighteen of the 27 members of Congress with the highest turnover rates were Democrats, and six were black women. Only two were senators. The data examined by The Times spans from 2001 through 2011 and was standardized by the website Legistorm.
Rep. Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota Republican who mounted a bid for the presidency, had an average annual staff turnover rate of 46 percent over four years. From 2007 to 2008, 10 of 15 staffers left, even though none of them had an alternate job lined up on the Hill.
To be sure, many of Mrs. Bachmann’s former campaign staffers, who are protected by fewer rules separating the personal from the professional than the taxpayer-funded congressional office workers, are not happy.
Peter Waldron said Mrs. Bachmann’s campaign has refused to pay him and other staffers after they spoke with law enforcement about a stolen list of voters, even though the campaign is flush with money.
“It’s probably not a coincidence that all the people who have not been paid are the very people who have either given depositions, given affidavits or have been interviewed extensively by the police,” he told The Hill newspaper.
It’s not the company Chuck Hagel wants to find himself among as senators consider his nomination to be defense secretary. Yet during the Republican’s tenure as a senator from Nebraska through 2009, his office’s turnover rate ranked second-highest of any in the past decade.
In 2005, 20 of 51 staffers left Mr. Hagel’s office, the vast majority of whom left Capitol Hill altogether and were replaced quickly by people with no legislative staff experience. Only George Allen, the former Virginia senator and governor, had a higher turnover rate in the Senate.
“He was ‘The Cornhusker wears Prada’ to his staff, some of whom describe their former boss as perhaps the most paranoid and abusive in the Senate, one who would rifle through staffers’ desks and berate them for imagined disloyalty,” former Pentagon adviser Michael Rubin told political analyst Taylor Marsh about Mr. Hagel.
Another former lawmaker tapped by President Obama also ranks among those running the most tumultuous offices. Hilda L. Solis, the California Democrat who served in the House of Representatives from 2001 to 2009 and later became labor secretary, lost an average of 44 percent of her staff each year between 2002 and 2007, a rate worse than all but four other members that decade.
As she took the helm of the Labor Department, Mrs. Solis pledged to improve working conditions for all Americans.
Time and time again, The Times’ statistical analysis mirrored serious documented abuse, illustrating the extent to which staff felt so mistreated that they were quitting their jobs, in some cases without others lined up, or being fired for trivial reasons en masse.
Rep. Joe Baca, California Democrat, had an average turnover of 37 percent of his staff each year during the past decade, peaking in 2008, when 12 staffers, including his legislative director, departed and 10 remained.
In 2006, congressional office staff said they felt forced to travel to California to volunteer for the campaign of his son, who was running for state office.
“Shortly after we got back, everyone started to leave,” one staffer told The Hill in 2006. “After [the trip], I became very skeptical. I didn’t trust anything. I just felt jaded. You don’t like getting suckered.”
Mr. Baca lost his re-election bid last year.
Staffer turned member
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the numbers suggest that the best members of Congress to work for include three House Democrats and one Republican senator, John Thune of South Dakota. All had annual turnover rates of about 11 percent.
“I was a former staffer myself, and I hope that results in my treating staff with respect,” said Rep. James P. McGovern, Massachusetts Democrat, whose average turnover rate of less than 11 percent ranks him best in both chambers. “It’s less me telling people it’s my way or the highway; it’s just ‘How do you feel, and tell me if I’m wrong.’ It’s not particularly formal with all this hierarchy. People call me Jim.
“Any member who tells you they do it on their own is not being honest. We’re inundated with thousands of issues, and to be a productive member of Congress you need your staff. I think you get a better work product at the end of the day when it’s about getting things done instead of being fearful,” he said.
Another lawmaker with just an 11 percent turnover rate is Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, Mississippi Democrat. He has been a member of the House since 1993 and serves as the ranking member of the Committee on Homeland Security.
Rep. Barbara Lee, California Democrat, was a former staffer, too, but her retention numbers are not nearly as impressive. She had 103 people work for her throughout the decade ending in 2011, not including temporary staffers, surpassed only by Mrs. Jackson Lee, and just ahead of disgraced former Rep. Anthony Weiner, New York Democrat.
In those offices with unusually high turnover, the problem is occasionally not the member himself, but the right-hand man with whom most staff interact.
Between 2005 and 2006, 14 of 22 staffers of Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, Texas Democrat, departed, and in recent years she has had an annual turnover rate of 36 percent. But those departing aides shouldn’t expect any help when they leave.
When legislative assistant Chris Crowe asked for a letter of recommendation to the Treasury from longtime Chief of Staff Murat Gokcigdem, Mrs. Johnson’s top staffer instead wrote that Mr. Crowe, who is gay, “performed his duties to somewhat satisfactory level” but the Treasury must be considering him only because gays in the administration were “watching and supporting each other, if you know what I mean.”
Rep. Betty Sutton, Ohio Democrat, had nine employees handle media in less than three years, and former staffers call her “harsh,” according to The Plain Dealer in Cleveland. They point out that a member becomes less effective if she can’t retain staff because expertise is lost.
Mrs. Sutton, who lost her re-election bid last year, responded that her employees were consistently poached by other employers because of their skills. The vast majority left Congress altogether instead of moving to other offices, The Times analysis showed.
Some staffers have had the “luxury” of working for two difficult bosses, at least according to the numbers.
Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald, California Democrat, reportedly fired an aide for leaving a box of candy on her chair and demanded that aides never walk in front of her. When Ms. Millender-McDonald died of cancer, the Compton-area district was represented by Rep. Laura Richardson, but Millender-McDonald’s chief of staff and others remained.
The House Ethics Committee then found Ms. Richardson guilty of violating rules that prohibit pressuring her staff to perform campaign work and personal errands and recommended a reprimand and $10,000 fine.
Millender-McDonald had a 38 percent average annual turnover rate, while Ms. Richardson, who lost her seat as a result of redistricting last year, had a 34 percent rate.
Rep. Brad Sherman, a California Democrat who was voted second “meanest” House member in a Washingtonian magazine survey of House staffers, had a nearly 50 percent annual turnover rate for several years in a row. Press secretary is among the positions in flux, but Don MacDonald said his boss was friendly and accessible.
Mr. MacDonald, who has 15 years of experience on Capitol Hill, is now chief of staff, a position typically occupied for many years. He is following predecessors who departed in 2002, 2003, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010, more frequently than any other member, records show.
“Each one of them left for a very specific reason. One moved to Los Angeles. A lot of them left to make more money,” he said.
Rep. Tim Murphy, Pennsylvania Republican, has a 42 percent average turnover rate, peaking at 64 percent in 2006, the year Jayne O’Shaughnessy, a 63-year-old scheduler for Mr. Murphy, was fired after she and five other staffers told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that Mr. Murphy routinely forced office staffers to perform campaign work.
When a television reporter confronted Mr. Murphy with documents pertaining to the mixing of campaign and office business, Mr. Murphy reportedly grabbed the documents and refused to return them.
“He would just flip out,” Ms. O’Shaughnessy said.