Last week, three stories were published detailing Amy Klobuchar’s allegedly abusive behavior toward her staff, two from HuffPost and one from BuzzFeed. This week, yet another story was published, this time by Yahoo, with anonymous former staffers alleging Klobuchar would throw objects and retaliate against staffers who took new jobs by calling their new bosses and asking them to rescind the offer. (Klobuchar has said in response that she “can be tough” and “can push people,” but she has defended herself overall, and her office said she “has many staff who have been with her for years.”)
The political implications of these stories have so far dominated the discussion. Why? This is somewhat understandable—Klobuchar is running for president, after all—but it’s also because journalists who write about politicians are mostly incapable of analyzing issues outside the horse race framing. There’s no better example of the hollowness of this approach than this Washington Post piece from Friday headlined “Does it matter if Amy Klobuchar is a mean boss?”, which treats the allegations against Klobuchar’s as a purely political problem:
As the presidential primary campaign heats up over the next year, Klobuchar’s management style will surely be further scrutinized. But should it be? Is how a person treats their staff a reflection of how they’ll perform in their job?
On Capitol Hill, it’s always been widely accepted that there are lawmakers known for their hostility and outrageous demands. The worst among them has always been an open secret, but it’s never affected their electoral prospects.
These questions are absurd. In what other job would we ask whether we should scrutinize the way a boss treats their staff? How could it not “matter” if a boss treats their staff like shit, whether they’re a politician or not? It sure as hell matters for the staff. This is the classic, Cillizza-esque analytical approach of politics reporters: Feeling unable to weigh in on whether something is actually good or bad, because that wouldn’t be Objective, they stick to analyzing whether it’ll affect electoral outcomes. That’s how you end up in the position of wondering how it’ll play in Peoria if Amy Klobuchar throws stuff at her staffers.
What if, instead of approaching this story as a matter of political intrigue, we treated this story as it should be treated—as a labor story, a story of a shitty boss and workers who deserve better? In the American workplace, the boss has outsized power and workers have increasingly less. This is far more pressing in low-wage jobs, but it is also true in Congress, where staffers are underpaid and overworked and the boss is a member of the ruling elite. It says something important about Klobuchar’s understanding of labor rights—and her politics—if she abuses the power she has over her staff to demand they complete her menial personal errands, or screams at staffers for tiny errors. Does she think that other bosses have a right to treat their staffers the way she allegedly does? Does she understand how power operates in the workplace at all?
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Yet a lot of people don’t seem to consider this angle. Many others have dismissed the stories about her out of hand—either because they think it won’t matter much in the 2020 primary, or perhaps because they buy into the notion that Klobuchar’s alleged behavior simply makes her a tough boss with high standards. Look at the replies to any number of tweets about the Klobuchar stories; MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle attributing it to “disgruntled” staffers who want the “spotlight”—so desperate for personal fame that they wouldn’t let the reporters use their names—or the smarmy, “you never hear this about a man” response, which is absolute nonsense.
There are a lot of explanations for this reflexive dismissal. Partisanship and confirmation bias play a role—people don’t like to hear negative information about politicians they like, so they explain it away. Then there’s the unfortunate, self-flagellating American approach to work. It’s generally assumed that you ought to work as hard as you can even if that means being miserable, and if you submitted to this mythos and made it up the ladder, you likely buy into the selfish belief that other people should be forced to manage, too. It’s an argument you frequently hear in conversations about paying interns: ‘Well, I worked for free, paid my dues, and made it out. That’s just how things work.’ That’s how you end up with the Wall Street Journal attributing Klobuchar staffers’ complaints to “millennial demands”—well, that and batshit conservatism.
But anyone who’s ever been friends with a low-level Hill staffer—as in, anyone who’s been in politics or journalism in DC—knows Capitol Hill is a rough place to work. When I moved to DC in 2012, I had friends on the Hill whose salaries were less than $30,000. According to Legistorm, the median salary for a staff assistant, a common entry-level job, is $35,446. For a press assistant, it’s $40,068. That’s in one of the most expensive cities in the U.S., where the median household income is $77,649 and the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is more than $2,000. These staffers aren’t exactly poor—DC has incredibly high income inequality, with the median income in wealthy Ward 2 being $165,000 more than in the predominately black Ward 8. But those wages are still low enough to make it a struggle to live on, and the only way to get ahead is to keep your head down and not make waves—even if that means not speaking up about your boss’ habit of, say, calling people who offer you jobs and asking them to rescind the offer to “punish those who betray” her.
This creates a powerful culture of silence. I know this because until last week, I had spent roughly four months reaching out to ex-Klobuchar staffers, trying to get them to talk to me about the rumors I had heard. I was massively unsuccessful. Only two agreed to talk to me, and what they told me tracks very closely with what HuffPost, BuzzFeed and Yahoo reported: One had witnessed Klobuchar throwing things at staffers, and another recounted her fury at typos in her official tweets, to the point that she refused to let staff delete a tweet with an incorrect date for an event. (I reached out to Klobuchar’s office for comment about these allegations and will update if I hear back.)
But most said no, or didn’t respond. That’s not surprising for a boss with a reputation for getting her staffers’ new job offers rescinded. But for every story about a bad Hill boss, whether that’s Klobuchar or Todd Rokita or Tim Murphy, you have to wonder—how many more are there out there where reporters haven’t been able to get enough sources to do a story? What if the worst thing about the Klobuchar story isn’t that she was terribly abusive to staff, but that her behavior was only slightly worse than most Hill bosses—and what about the staffers whose stories still haven’t been told? If Klobuchar can describe her behavior as merely “pushing” people and apparently mostly get away with it, how are other members of Congress “pushing” their staff?
In congressional offices, there are few pathways to agitating for change. It’s no wonder that Klobuchar has such high staff turnover: When you get pushed to breaking point, and you have no good options to push for change, the only thing left to do is leave. The best way for workers to band together to agitate for better working conditions is that classic form of legally-protected activity we know and love: unions. But not only are congressional staff not unionized, they’re not legally permitted to unionize.
There are many ways Congress could improve conditions for its staff. They could investigate the allegations against Amy Klobuchar and any other members with serious allegations against them or create a staff advocate position to handle these kinds of complaints. They could allocate more funds to raise pay and hire more staff—something that Congress has desperately needed for years, and that would have massive benefits for public policy.
But the single best thing Congress could do to help its staff is pass a bill allowing congressional staff to unionize. Congressional staffers are workers with common interests that run counter to those of their bosses. They deserve the protections of a union, and they deserve not to fear retribution from an irate boss, or being belittled in front of others, or maybe being made to do horrific personal tasks. No boss has the right to do that—including the ones whose politics you like—and it shouldn’t only matter when the boss is running for president, either.