At first blush, Reps. Joe Wilson and Dan Kildee don’t seem to have much in common. Wilson, a Republican, represents a mostly rural patch of inland South Carolina, while Democrat Kildee’s district of factory towns runs along the Lake Huron waterfront down to the city of Flint, Mich. But their chiefs of staff say the two offices are more alike than not. “A lot of the work we do as chiefs helping to run a congressional office for a member, at the end of the day, isn’t really partisan,” said Mitchell Rivard, Kildee’s chief of staff. “Like, you process flag requests every day, you have businesses calling you to help with the SBA, [you have] tours.” Jonathan Day, Wilson’s chief of staff, was nodding along as Rivard spoke. Despite their partisan differences, the two are close friends. “Democrat [or] Republican, you kind of hang out with your own party,” said Day. “But then you meet somebody that’s a Democrat — they’re the same person as you. They have a little different philosophy, but they’re working 12 to 16 hours a day like you, they’re working seven days a week, they’re getting all the same emails that you’re getting from outside groups.”
That realization — that they have more in common than what separates them — is one of the reasons they decided to run to lead the House Chiefs of Staff Association, together. They won back in September with 256 of the 356 votes cast. It’s the first time the staff organization, which traces its founding back to the “Little Congress” created in 1919, has bipartisan co-chairs heading it. The group amended its bylaws last year to require a Republican and Democrat to run together to co-lead. The change came in response to two issues that have made life worse for Hill denizens: the pandemic and polarization.
All these senior staffers share a belief that Capitol Hill can revive the collegial culture they say once existed. “As many problems as we have, we have one Congress, right?” Rivard said. “This place is actually what we make of it. It is a collective sense of the elected members and staff who choose to be here … and we can all collectively choose to keep going down the path we’re going, or we can say there’s a better path.” The hope is these small steps can help curb polarization and eventually overcome the political trends driving it: the steady nationalization of American politics, partisan sorting along geographical and cultural lines, and narrowing margins in national elections. Combined, those ingredients form the base for legislative deadlock. And, unable to deliver on their campaign trail promises, politicians turn to demonizing the other side to scare their voters to the polls, creating a vicious cycle.