Thousands of people spend their days on Capitol Hill and across the U.S. supporting the work of each member of Congress. From chiefs of staff down to unpaid interns, Congressional staffers work long hours in a high-stress environment, doing the people’s work.
People aren’t hired off the street to be chiefs of staff, legislative directors, or communications directors without significant experience working in Congressional offices. The most common positions people start in are legislative correspondents, staff assistants, and interns.
Congressional Staffer Duties & Responsibilities
Congressional staffers are most likely assigned the tasks no one else wants to do when they first sign on to a Congressional staffer job. This job generally requires the ability to do perform the following tasks as well:
- Take phone calls from constituents.
- Correspond using email with supporters.
- File and organize paper and electronic reports and data.
- Draft written responses to letters.
- Schedule Congressmember's commitments and appearances.
- Make travel arrangements.
- Arrange speaking engagements.
- Attend and document meetings.
- Research policy and legislation.
- Analyze drafts to ensure they meet legislative standards.
- Track legislation.
Staffers contribute a great deal to managing a senator's or representative's day to day activities, keeping things running smoothly. They might seem like minions in the overall hierarchy at first glance, but they're in fact an integral part of the backbone of the office.
Congressional Staffer Salary
Congressmembers are given allowances from which they must pay for travel and office expenses, including their staff's salaries. These allowances are determined by formulas, and they've been frozen since 2009.
The maximum salary allowed for staffers employed by Representatives was capped at $168,411 as of 2018. The maximum salary for staffers employed by Senators was somewhat more: $169,459. But salaries for legislative aides are actually considerably less:
- Median Annual Salary: $40,172 ($19.31/hour)
- Top 10% Annual Salary: More than $63,000 ($30.29/hour)
- Bottom 10% Annual Salary: Less than $31,000 ($14.90/hour)
Given budgetary constraints, it can be expected that this job will require some out-of-pocket costs. Staffers might be required to cover their transportation costs when taking care of business outside the office, and it's unlikely that conveniences such as cellphones would be provided to them—but this can depend on whether the Congressmember is willing to personally come out of pocket to provide them.
Education, Training, & Certification
The House and Senate do not have standard hiring processes for filling positions in their members’ offices, other than some requirements set for all federal employees. Each member of Congress hires how they see fit.
- Education: There are no set education requirements for entry-level Congressional staffers, but many have an undergraduate degree and perhaps a graduate degree in fields such as political science, public policy, law, and communications. Given the competition for these positions, the value of at least a bachelor's degree cannot be overstated.
- Experience: Candidates don’t necessarily need any particular experience to be hired in a Congressional office, but it helps. Those with some experience in politics are more likely to get a paid job rather than an unpaid internship to start, but unpaid internships can provide a stepping stone to a paying job later. Candidates may also volunteer their services during campaigns and at other critical times.
- Citizenship: Candidates must be a U.S. citizen or be lawfully admitted for permanent residence and be seeking citizenship. An exception to this rule exists for refugees and those who have been granted asylum. They must pledge their allegiance to the U.S.
Congressional Staffer Skills & Competencies
Certain qualities are needed to succeed in this field:
- Speaking skills: Staffers might find themselves addressing the public, and short of that, the job requires a great deal of interaction with other staffers, politicians, and constituents. They must express themselves clearly.
- Reading and writing skills: They have to correspond in writing with a variety of individuals.
- Basic computer skills: They handle basic programs like Microsoft Outlook, Excel, and Word.
- An ability to work well under pressure: Staffers must be able to juggle deadlines and commitments without error because missing one or more can have serious consequences. They should be able to work calmly and efficiently in stressful situations.
- Organizational skills: The job can require keeping abreast of multiple details and being able to find certain information at a moment's notice.
- Physical stamina: Workdays can sometimes be long and, depending upon the position, require multiple hours on their feet.
Staffers can begin competing for higher-level jobs in the same or another Congressional office after they've developed their skillset, and they might find themselves doing that regardless because these positions can be temporary. Long-term employment depends on the Congressmember being reelected.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects that employment of legal assistants, in general, will grow by about 15% from 2016 through 2026. This is faster than the average for all occupations.
This job can be unpredictable, given the demands on legislators' time and their diverse responsibilities. Quiet days can be followed by a string of fast-paced commitments, and this can be stressful.
Congressional staffers might be in an office one day and at a campaign event or speaking engagement the next. The work environment can be unpredictable.
Congressional staffers typically work during regular business hours during times when Congress is not in session. Otherwise, significant overtime can be expected.
How to Get the Job
PARTICIPATE IN STUDENT GOVERNMENT
Get involved in student government in college. You'll learn a lot that can be useful later, and it will look good on your resume.
CHECK AVAILABLE JOB LISTINGS
Each chamber has an organization to assist in hiring staff, but these organizations perform particular functions which do not always include standardizing job postings, screening applications, or ensuring that hiring processes are fair. The Senate Placement Office and the House Vacancy Announcement and Placement Service collect resumes and advertise vacancies. Submitted resumes are kept on file for 90 days.
The most effective way to get a foot in the door as a legislative correspondent, staff assistant, or intern is to network. Make yourself stand out well before a member’s office advertises a job. The Congressional Staff Network JFF might be a good place to start.
Comparing Similar Jobs
Those interested in working for the U.S. Congress might also consider these other careers, particularly to gain experience. Median salaries are given for 2018:
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018