Government Job Profile: Chief of Staff to a Congressman

Martin Shkreli invoking 5th amendment right
••• Mark Wilson / Staff / Getty Images

If you were to walk around Capitol Hill while Congress is in session, you’d run into far more people than simply the 535 members and a few security guards. You would see countless congressional staffers dressed in business formal attire zipping through the halls and around the grounds.

All these professionals who support members of Congress do not work with elected officials on a day-to-day basis. Instead, they are organized under chiefs of staff who direct the work of people employed by members and committees. They are the bridge between the congressional members and the rest of the members’ employees.

The Selection Process

You won’t find these job posted publicly very often. These positions are often earned by building a good reputation and an extensive professional network. Members seek recommendations from their colleagues and their colleagues’ chiefs of staff. Politicians need people they can trust to look out for their best interests and to complete work with excellence.

The Education and Experience You'll Need

Congressional chiefs of staff tend to have college degrees and significant experience on Capitol Hill. Before landing this position, individuals hold jobs in congressional offices, at federal agencies, in law firms, and in private businesses. Many have diverse employment experiences which help them adapt to the work environment and responsibilities of the chief of staff position. People who are hired into chief of staff positions are skilled at networking because landing one of these jobs often involves having very powerful people respect your talent and professionalism.

What You'll Do

The chief of staff for a member of Congress is the one staffer who reports directly to the elected official. All other staff within the office ultimately report to the chief of staff. Congressional offices have middle managers, but all lines on the organizational chart lead up to the chief of staff and then to the member. All work the member of Congress delegates is either completed by the chief of staff or is further delegated to other staffers within the office.

This arrangement of staff is very similar to that of the workforce in a city operating under the council-manager form of government. The city council -- just like a congressional seat holder -- has been elected by the people. The city council employs a professional staff that works under the direction of the city manager. The city council holds the city manager accountable who in turn holds the staff accountable. The member of Congress holds the chief of staff accountable who in turn holds his subordinates accountable.

In addition to supervising all the other staff, the chief of staff serves as the member’s chief political advisor. It’s one thing for a legislative aide to recommend a piece of legislation as something the member should support. It’s an entirely different matter as to whether the member can expend the political capital supporting the bill. The chief of staff is the member’s primary sounding board when it comes to political maneuvering.

A chief of staff divides his or her time between the district office and the Capitol office. Each office serves a different purpose. The district office exists to interact with the member’s constituency. The Capitol office supports the representative or senator in doing the work he or she was elected to do.

Each member’s office and each committee office serves as its own employing entity. While some offices are part of the House or Senate, most people walking around Capitol Hill are not employed by a chamber of Congress. Rather, most are employed by a member or committee. The chief of staff arranges hiring processes to fill job vacancies. At times, chiefs of staff solicit assistance from the Senate Placement Office or the House Vacancy Announcement and Placement Service when they need help filling jobs underneath them.

What You'll Earn

According to the 2010 House Compensation Study, the average salary for a chief of staff in the House of Representatives was $136,588. According to a 2014 report by the Congressional Research Service, chiefs of staff in the Senate earned an average salary of $161,550 in the federal fiscal year 2013. These salaries are significantly higher than those of their usual direct reports; however, those on the next rung down the ladder still make good livings.