So Over the Hill: Mariah Sixkiller
Posted at 1:03 p.m. on May 16, 2014
“It’s easy to point fingers at who the problem children are, and yes, it might get better if those members didn’t make it back. But everyone needs to play an active role in trying to create a culture of kindness and respect among staff and members.”
Even for the most exciting of Capitol Hill careers, there is life after leaving the Hill. Mariah Sixkiller, a longtime senior policy adviser to House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, has spent the past 15 years as a foreign policy and national security expert. She is now taking her expertise to the aptly named Sixkiller Consulting, a boutique government affairs shop founded by her husband Casey Sixkiller. (Of note for starry-eyed young Hill staffers: The two met while Mariah was a staffer to Sen. Maria Cantwell and Casey a legislative assistant to Rep. Jim McDermott, both Washington Democrats.)
Sixkiller spent a few minutes sharing some wisdom with Hill Navigator readers. A lightly edited Q-and-A follows.
Q: In your time on the Hill, what has changed the most?
A: The comity between members has been deeply eroded. When I started, there was a culture of mutual back-scratching when it came to getting stuff done on the floor. Plus, members were just more decent to each other — fights were left on the floor, not carried off. Members spent more time socializing with each other and each other’s families; there was less tension overall. I think there are a lot of reasons for this. One that isn’t talked about enough is the cutbacks on travel. Having staffed a bunch of CoDels [to Europe, Africa and the Middle East], I’ve seen first-hand how the barriers dissolve between parties and members and true friendships formed. With fewer opportunities to connect off-line like this, it’s understandable that members have grown apart.
Q: What’s the best part of leaving the Hill?
A: More balance in my life — especially as a working mother. Now I can control my client load.
Q: What will you miss the most?
A: My colleagues and the members. Despite what the country thinks of Congress, I know there are good people with very good intentions working hard every day for the American people. Plus, I have to say, this freshman Democratic class is the most dynamic class I’ve ever worked with. They are really good people with diverse backgrounds and great ideas. So much potential there!
Q: What you know now that you wish you’d known then?
A: There is never enough time in the day to do it all and help everyone you want to help. Sometimes, the only thing you can do is listen fully. Even if you can’t get what they want done, hearing them out and offering advice on next steps goes a long way.
Q:What advice would you give someone starting a career on the Hill?
A: Cream rises. Keep a good attitude, work hard, learn your boss’ voice and how to write for him/her and always remember how small this town is. Your reputation proceeds you — good or bad — and someone is always watching. So be yourself and stay focused on your goals, but remember your decisions will catch up with you one way or another.
Q: The “best kept secret” on Capitol Hill?
A: It used to be the post office in the Capitol — no line on tax day! Besides that, I’d say the Social Security Administration office off the [Rayburn House Office Building] garage — also a great resource for avoiding horribly long lines if you want to change your name when you get married.
Q: Ten years from now, how do you think Capitol Hill will be different?
A: I hope the comity returns. It’s easy to point fingers at who the problem children are, and yes, it might get better if those members didn’t make it back. But everyone needs to play an active role in trying to create a culture of kindness and respect among staff and members. As long as it costs millions of dollars to win races, though, there will continue to be less time than there should be to get to know each other, which is really tragic for the American people and our democracy.
Know a former Hill staffer with wisdom to share? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.