Two Decades of Change in Congress — The Good and the Bad: Ms. Kristin Nicholson, J.D.
Director, Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University; Former Chief of Staff, Office of Rep. Jim Langevin (D-RI)
Kristin Nicholson spent 20 years working on Capitol Hill. During her time there, she saw Congress become a younger, more diverse, and inclusive environment. However with these changes, she also witnessed the dismantling of historic traditions that have kept Congress running for 228 years.
“Often I was the only woman in the room”
Considering Kristin Nicholson’s upbringing and early achievement in the political realm, one would imagine that her political aspirations have always been ambitious. After growing up in the most politically active city in the world — Washington, DC — Nicholson became a Congressional Chief of Staff at the young age of 28 for Rep. Jim Langevin (D-RI). In reality, it wasn’t until she interned for a Governor’s office in her twenties that Nicholson entertained the idea of working in politics. After finishing law school at the University of Colorado in 1996, Nicholson moved back to DC and had the opportunity to intern at a Member’s office the following year. This small glimpse of Capitol Hill during her internship inspired her 20 year long career in Congress.
As a woman in politics, Nicholson faced several challenges during her first years on the Hill. She recalls that Congress was a “much older and grayer body as a whole” with “old Lions who had served for decades.” Not only was Congress filled with older staff members, but there were hardly any women in leadership roles. “Often I was the only woman in the room,” she said. With few female peers in similar leadership positions, Nicholson had to fight overwhelming stereotypes in order to ensure that her opinions were considered.
“There was a tendency to assume that women don’t have as much to offer or that their experience isn’t valid. So I think it takes a little bit of an extra push to get that perspective in the room,” said Nicholson, “and it was up to me to get my viewpoints heard.”
As time went on, the environment in DC became more balanced as more women entered the political scene.
Unfortunately, Nicholson didn’t just struggle with the external pressures of working in a male-dominated field but also internally, having to assure herself that she deserved the position as much as her other colleagues. Many women in a predominantly male workforce suffer from Imposter Syndrome — where they believe they end up in powerful positions by accident and Nicholson was not immune to these doubts. As she grew into her role, she began to care less about how she was perceived and became more concerned with having her views represented. One of the biggest pieces of advice Nicholson gives to young women is to “start from a place of confidence” and not internalize feelings of inferiority. “Coming from a place of confidence allows others not to question your leadership,” said Nicholson.
“It can be a disservice… to the institution as a whole”
While Nicholson welcomes changes that promote inclusivity and diversity, she recognizes that the high turnover in Congress has led to the erosion of several historic traditions. She realizes that the current makeup on the Hill tends to be younger and less experienced — both on the Staff and the Member level. With a younger generation on the Hill, there are not as many “institutionalists” who are committed to protecting Congress as an establishment. She argues that these shifts have played a role in the inability to pass legislation.
“I feel like it can do a disservice to the constituents at a grassroots level and to the institution as a whole. Congress is an incredibly historic institution and there are established norms and processes that, for better or for worse, have helped things get done for generations. And I think when those [established norms] get eroded, it becomes problematic to pass basic legislation”
In order to preserve these traditions, she hopes future generations on the Hill will explore historical biographies and other materials that reveal integral Congressional transitions. Nicholson wishes she had read these biographies earlier in her career as they allowed her to compare the similarities in Congress that have spanned hundreds of years, “it’s fascinating to be able to see the evolution and how we got to where we are today.”
“It’s more complicated than saying ‘Democrats versus Republicans’”
In discussing the challenges facing Congress, Nicholson realizes that partisanship has been more pronounced in the past few years — especially with the significant loss of moderates on both sides of the aisle. Yet she is quick to add that the media oversimplifies the dynamics on Capitol Hill, “it’s more complicated than saying Democrats versus Republicans.” Complicated political dynamics often don’t translate to the public, and Nicholson credits this disconnect to the tendency of the media to oversimplify political complexities.
With partisanship on the rise, Nicholson feels that organizations that promote bipartisanship are critical to support cooperation on the Hill. She praises the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress (FMC) for fostering bipartisanship through their international Study Tours for Members of Congress and Senior Congressional Staff through FMC’s Congressional Study Groups. She believes one of the most important opportunities offered to Congressional staffers is international travel programs. Through these experiences abroad, Members and staffers alike are able to see how American policies impact other countries first hand and are provided with unique networking opportunities. Nicholson recalls that some of her closest friendships on the Hill were created on international trips and were friendships that led to greater cooperation across party lines.
“Somewhere along the way on Day 4 on a long bus ride you finally realize, ‘Oh my boss and your boss have completely random interests in the same thing and when we get back we should talk about writing a bill together’; and that happens all the time.”
“You never can turn it off”
Reflecting on her career, she explains how there are “a million reasons” that make working on the Hill an incredible opportunity; “It’s such a fun place to work, you have access to amazing amounts of information and fascinating people.” Yet when Nicholson was approached by the Director of Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University (GAI) to discuss if she had any interest in succeeding him, she knew she couldn’t refuse. Nicholson worked with the Institute as a guest speaker for several years and admired GAI’s mission in working to enhance the understanding between the Executive and Legislative Branches. GAI organizes seminars and lectures to explain why Congress and Congressional legislation matter in the lives of Executive branch employees. They aim to explain how “seemingly unexplainable decisions are being made every day”
While the Hill holds a very dear place in her heart, she doesn’t see herself going back. “I feel like the older I get the less suited I am for that lifestyle. It’s a tough life.” While working, Nicholson normalized the unpredictable schedule and long hours but once she left, she realized, “Wow [that’s] not normal. You never can turn it off.” Although Nicholson misses her friends and her time there, she feels that GAI is the perfect balance as it allows her to stay connected with the people and policies on the Hill.
One more question …
What is something that people don’t know about you but might be surprised to find out?
“People used to know this about me but I think it’s now a forgotten fact but… I used to be a Hip-Hop DJ in DC.” Nicholson laughs remembering how at her old job, she would shock the youngest members of her staff by sharing this fun fact. “As I got older and older and they got younger and younger, it was like your mom telling you something like this” she said. “So when I was much younger in DC and didn’t have kids, I could be out much later… I had a very short-lived career as a DJ on the side.”
What did you call yourself?
“DJCirclek. I’ve always had this parallel because I’ve always been super into my career and politics but if I didn’t have music, I really don’t think I would have been able to handle the other.”
by Julia Fanzeres, Summer 2017 Intern, US Association of Former Members of Congress