The first big piece of legislation Chris Miller worked on as a congressional staffer was the landmark Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. He still remembers how lopsided the vote was to strengthen America’s most important environmental law: 89-10. “Ever since then, it seems like there’s been a long downward slide toward polarization on environmental protection,” Miller said. And so the man who was the top energy and environment adviser to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., decided to leave. His last day was Jan. 4.
Like many veteran Capitol Hill staffers, Miller is frustrated with the partisanship that has taken over Congress. That’s especially true in energy and environmental policy, on which the private sector and the federal government have a necessary yet often intractable relationship that fuels fights inside the Beltway and around the world. “I just felt like there were going to be more opportunities to go outside to work on increasing the overall atmosphere, so the inside could work better and be more productive in the longer term,” said Miller, who has been on the Hill, working these issues, for more than a quarter-century.
Miller is going even though he doesn’t have a new job, and he’s not the only staffer to decide that now is a good time to leave Congress. An unusually large number of senior aides in this policy space have left in the past few months. Among them are Mike Ference, chief energy adviser to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.; Michael Catanzaro, senior energy aide to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio; staff directors for both the Democratic chairman and the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee; and most of the Republican staff on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
Many of these departures are part of the natural churn brought on by changes in committee assignments and members’ retirements, and all the aides offer different reasons for leaving. But in interviews with National Journal, many of them—including those who have recently left and some who left some time ago—cite the Hill’s partisanship and the constant political-campaign atmosphere. “Having stayed on the Hill for as long as I did and learning everything I did, you couldn’t pay me enough to be a member of Congress,” said a former House Republican energy aide who would speak only on the condition of anonymity. “It is a hard, rigorous job. I think the glory of it all that was of the past is gone. It’s not a fun thing to do anymore.”
Indeed, despite moments of bipartisanship—such as the $105 billion transportation bill that Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Boehner ushered through Congress last year—an ultra-partisan environment is leading to shorter congressional careers for policy experts, and that turnover affects relationships among staff members and, ultimately, committees’ ability to work toward policy. “The average length of staff careers is getting shorter and shorter,” said McKie Campbell, who was staff director for Senate Energy and Natural Resources ranking member Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, before being lured away by consulting firm BlueWater Strategies. “There is certainly a level of partisanship, which does not make it a more enjoyable place to be.”
Many of the positions these top staffers left are already filled. Alexander McDonough, another Reid staffer on energy and environment issues, was promoted to Miller’s position. Karen Billups, the chief counsel for Murkowski on the Energy committee, is her new staff director. Maryam Brown, the top energy aide on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, moved up to Boehner’s office to fill the post left vacant by Catanzaro, and a former aide, Tom Hassenboehler, has returned to fill Brown’s committee spot. The only position yet to be filled right now is the one vacated by Ference in Cantor’s office.
This significant level of turnover couldn’t come at a more pivotal time. The transition among the Hill’s top brains on energy and environment policy is happening just as an increasing number of Americans are acknowledging the urgency of climate change. (Indeed, President Obama highlighted the issue in his Inaugural Address.) At the same time, vast new discoveries of oil and natural gas are creating jobs and moving the United States closer than ever to meeting the elusive goal of energy independence. Leadership in Washington will be important in finding the sweet spot between addressing climate change and exploiting the energy boom. “The fact that the picture on energy is evolving substantially opens up new questions that we didn’t ask before,” said Bob Simon, staff director to former Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., the Senate Energy and Natural Resources chairman who retired at the end of the last Congress.
The members leading the charge, such as the new chairman of the Energy committee, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., will be asking those questions. The new cadre of aides will be helping them find the answers.
This article appears in the January 26, 2013 edition of National Journal Magazine as Changing Environment.