Potomac Fever seized San Joaquin Valley native Scott Nishioki some three decades ago.
The adrenaline. The pace. The proximity to power, and the potential to do something great: Nishioki knows the symptoms top to bottom after a long immersion in the capital scene.
“It’s pretty heady stuff for a Sanger High School grad,” Nishioki said, noting that, “I still think of myself as a small-town person.”
Now, after working for three members of Congress, one Cabinet secretary and several lobbying concerns, the 60-year-old Nishioki is making a change. Again.
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Currently chief of staff for Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., and well-known among the Valley’s political pros, Nishioki is leaving Capitol Hill effective Dec. 31. In time, he says, he “could go back to the dark side and become a lobbyist,” though for the time being, he’s made no firm plans.
“I’m going to be able to hold off until spring, and get a few more rounds of golf in,” Nishioki said.
The 1976 California State University, Fresno graduate is what people mean when they talk about institutional memory. He was working on Capitol Hill before many current congressional staffers were born.
The average age of a House staffer is 31, according to a Congressional Management Foundation survey. This happens to be how about many years Nishioki has worked in Washington.
Starting in 1983 with then-Rep. Richard Lehman, a Democrat for whom he also worked in the state Assembly, Nishioki has put in time with another House member, as deputy chief of staff at the Commerce Department and as a lobbyist for a telecommunications company and the American Bankers Association, among others. He returned to the Hill following Costa’s initial 2006 election to the House, overseeing a D.C. and district staff of about 18.
“Scott understands and appreciates the inner workings of this city better than anyone else,” Costa said.
And oh, the stories he can tell.
A fixture at the National Democratic Club and out on his beloved links, where he once played a round with then-future House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, Nishioki is an artful raconteur. He appreciates the hill’s larger-than-life characters, even the ones for whom the word “colorful” is a euphemism. He knows the unspoken rules, like the fact that it doesn’t pay for a lobbyist to beat a House member in golf. He gets the joke.
“I’ve always been a big fan of the personalities of politics, to be able to sit on the sidelines and watch,” Nishioki said.
But Nishioki is serious, too, and that can make it hard to take what’s happening in Congress. While his retirement from a job that paid him about $160,000 last year results, in part, from his having reached the pension threshold of 20 years of federal government employment, some discontent has contributed as well.
For one thing, it’s no fun being in the minority.
Democrats ran the House during the time Nishioki worked for Lehman, who lost his seat in the 1994 wave election when Republicans gained House control for the first time in 40 years. Democrats were back in charge when Costa took office in January 2007, but Republicans then resurged in the 2010 elections. Odds are the House Republicans who currently enjoy a 232-201 advantage over Democrats will retain control next year. That means most Democrats basically watch while Republicans rule, or try to.
For another thing, Congress has not aged well.
“This place is dysfunctional,” Nishioki said. “It’s gotten far more partisan and…it’s not as much fun as it used to be.”
This isn’t just nostalgia speaking.
In 1983, Nishioki’s first year of working on Capitol Hill, a total of 120 House bills were enacted into law, according to congressional records. The House was in session 851 hours that year. This year, by contrast, only 41 House bills have been enacted into law, while the House has been in session 722 hours.
Staff morale, moreover, takes a hit when lawmakers stumble. The public approval rating for Congress was about 30 percent in 1983; not great, but rave reviews compared to today. In November, only 9 percent of U.S. residents surveyed approved of the job Congress was doing, according to a Gallup poll. Even House members say they wonder what those 9 percent are thinking of.
“Back in the 80s, even though we had a divided government…we got things done,” Nishioki said, a little wistfully.
In some ways, though, he’s also seen some Capitol Hill changes for the better. Nishioki, whose parents Faye and Norman were interred in camps during World War II, noted that when he arrived in the early 1980s, few Asian-Americans were in visible positions. One, then-congressman Norman Mineta, made a point of seeking out Nishioki at a party precisely because he stood out as a fellow Asian-American.
Mineta, who served as commerce secretary under President Bill Clinton and transportation secretary under President George W. Bush, hired Nishioki at the Commerce Department.
Now, 13 members of Congress are Asian-American or Pacific Islanders.
Nishioki’s wife, Karen, a fellow Fresno State graduate, works at the American College of Cardiology. Though he says they “still feel like Californians,” her job and their shared interests mean his post-Capitol Hill life will still center around Washington.
“Like a lot of folks, we only planned to be here a few years,” Nishioki said, but added, “I’ve had a great time in Washington, and I still want to make a difference.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story gave the wrong title for Norman Mineta under President George W. Bush. He was the transportation secretary.