Time on Capitol Hill

April 11, 2023


Jack Gruber-USA TODAY

Jan 25, 2021; Washington, DC, USA; Clerk of the House of Representatives Cheryl Johnson (second from right), Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) (center) and Acting House Sergeant of Arms Timothy Blodgett (right) lead fellow House Impeachment Managers as they proceed to deliver the article of impeachment against former US President Donald J Trump to the Senate floor on Jan. 25, 2021 at the US Capitol in Washington DC.

Most people have to begin in a senator’s personal office and work their way up to a committee.

But at 28-years-old in 1988, Johnson surpassed that expectation. She wasn’t just sitting on a committee when she started her first job on Capitol Hill. She was the House Administration’s Subcommittee on Libraries and Memorials staff director.

Johnson said she knew the St. Louis congressmen who hired her and called herself fortunate to start in an honored position.

The House Committee oversees the members’ pay. It oversees the members’ offices. It even oversees members’ parking spaces. In short, any administration  of the House and how it operates fell under the committee — including the Office of the Clerk and ensuring that the gift shops and cafeteria was open.

The subcommittee that Johnson had jurisdiction over was the Smithsonian, which encompasses 21 museums and a National Zoo, while the other subcommittee had jurisdiction over the Library of Congress.

“Both of those entities get more than 80 percent of their funding from Congress, and so my job was to make certain that they were carrying out their mission given that they received congressional funding,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s oversight included ensuring buildings like the museum buildings were up to date and checking that animals in the Smithsonian Zoo received proper care.

After four years of serving as staff director, Johnson became the staff director of the investigations committee and oversaw federal education programs and funding for different parts of the program.

After 18 years working on Capitol Hill, Johnson left in 2006 to work for the Smithsonian Institution. What swayed her decision to leave? The building of a museum that meant a lot to her.

“I saw that the Smithsonian was building an African American Museum, which I knew because the Hill had passed the bill. And I said, you know, maybe I’ll go to the Smithsonian,” Johnson said.

Her official title was Congressional Relations Associate and she acted as a liaison between Congress and the Smithsonian Institution for 13 years while the African American Museum was being built.

Johnson found the experience fascinating because of the museum’s finances. She said the total cost to build was $540 million, and $270 was appropriated from Congress while the rest of the $270 million was raised by the Smithsonian.

Donations flowed in from all 50 states, and even from Hollywood stars like Oprah Winfrey. Beyond working with the finances, Johnson also loved working with museum curators and choosing the museum’s programs.

“I had never been in such a vibrant group of people who have degrees in museum studies and anthropology, and it was just a fascinating time,” Johnson said.

After the National Museum of African American Museum and Culture opened in 2016, Johnson was promoted chief of staff for the museum for two years before she left to return to Capitol Hill.

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