'Push the correct button, win a cash prize!” That might sound like an outdated carnival game, but it actually describes government employment. Uncle Sam shelled out more than $1.2 million to pay operators to man the Capitol’s fully automated senators-only elevators over the last five years, according to reports from the secretary of the Senate.
The longer the elevator operators push the correct buttons, the more cash they win. The longest-tenured elevator operator has seen his annual salary increase each of the last five years—though non-congressional federal government employee wages are currently frozen—for total earnings of more than $210,000.
The Senate sergeant at arms office, which employs the operators, defended the presence of elevator operators in the Capitol. The operators provide services besides the obvious, the office said via email. It listed nine roles and responsibilities of the operators separate from the physical operation of the automated elevators. Many of these functions appear focused on providing a clear and safe path for senators to move through quickly, while the rest involve pointing confused tourists in the right direction or working in the galleries during Senate recesses so that passersby can still visit. The office also notes that all elevator operators are certified in first aid and CPR.
But that argument for the necessity of elevator operators is inconsistent with the sergeant at arms office’s previous verdict. When a government shutdown loomed during the spring of 2011, Senate sergeant at arms Terrance Gainer told Roll Call that elevator operators would be among the furloughed nonessential staff. Even after the Senate identified the taxpayer-funded operators as nonessential, no evidence exists to suggest that the body plans to eliminate or reduce the funding for those positions.
Elevator operators have worked in the Capitol since the late 19th century. Some longtime operators said they could decipher which senator was calling based on the interval between the three rings a senator would use to summon an elevator. William Watts, an elevator operator for more than 25 years in the early 1900s, claimed to be one such expert in a Palm Beach Daily News report. But, Watts said, “I didn’t have to tell that way when former Senator Gorman of New York wanted me. He was the most impatient man I ever knew. If I didn’t come right away he would shake the door and kick it.”
Such temper tantrums lingered even after the elevators became automated in the 1960s and ’70s. Senator Frank Lautenberg decried the presence of unelected persons on the senators-only elevators to the New York Times in 2006. “There is terrific crowding,” Lautenberg complained. “Sometimes you have to shove your way through, push people.”
Senator Jim Bunning famously prevented an ABC News reporter from joining him on an elevator in 2010, shouting, “Excuse me! This is a senator-only elevator!”
The unwritten rule for the senators-only elevators prohibits non-senators from entering unless a senator invites them, or they are fortunate enough to receive the patronage position of an elevator operator. The patronage system has been a hallmark of Capitol staffing for centuries. Senators may reward their political devotees with jobs in the Capitol, such as doorkeeper and elevator operator.
But it might be a dying tradition. In a 1981 interview for the U.S. Senate Oral History Project, Warren Featherstone Reid described how a friend from his hometown with political connections got him a job as an elevator operator for Senator Warren G. Magnuson in 1949 while he attended the George Washington University. “Patronage was very much the thing, and there was, I wouldn’t say a lot of patronage, but comparatively there was more,” Reid said, contrasting 1949 with 1981. “[E]levator operators, in a way, [had] one of the best [jobs] because you had a set shift and you didn’t work overtime.”
Through the years, college students hoping to finance their education often filled the positions of elevator operators. Now, elevator operators earn salaries that rival those of recent graduates. In the year ending March 31, 2012, the longest-tenured elevator operator made more than $41,000. That salary was greater than the average starting salaries of 2011 graduates in education, math and sciences, and humanities and social sciences, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. This elevator operator’s wage fell just a few hundred dollars short of the average starting salary of the 2011 communications graduate. Pushing the correct button hardly requires a college education, but if you know the right people, it can certainly pay off.
Ryan Lovelace, a student at Butler University, is a contributing reporter to the College Fix and a Weekly Standard intern.