Government Job Profile: Congressional Staffer
What It's Like to Work for the Politicians on Capitol Hill
While there are only 535 members of Congress, there are thousands of people who spend their days on Capitol Hill and across the US supporting the work each member of Congress does. From chiefs of staff down to unpaid interns, Congressional staffers work long hours in a high-stress environment doing the people’s work.
Here’s how former House of Representatives staffer Carter Moore describes the work in a 2013 online post: “If you want to understand the experience of a congressional staffer in short, here it is: Highly skilled and intelligent twenty- and thirtysomethings who want to demonstrate their value and make a worthy contribution to the direction of their country. They know that there are many, many people out there who would love to have their jobs, given the prestige of it, and work fervently to deliver results to their members to demonstrate their worth.
The job is high-stress and high-volume and carries high expectations, even if 9 in 10 Americans think you and your members aren’t working at all (which doesn’t help morale much). They are grossly underpaid. Burn-out is extraordinarily common, depending on the member’s expectations. Some congressional offices I worked with had 50 to 60 percent annual turnover!”
You have to start at the bottom. While there are promotional opportunities available by moving up within a member’s office or to higher positions in other members’ offices, 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.
Clearly, there are tradeoffs to be made when you accept an offer to work for a member of Congress. If this sounds exciting to you, chances are you’ll love it because you will be immersed in it and will have time for little else in your life. So here’s how to get your first job in a Congressional office.
The Selection Process
While it would make sense for the House and Senate to have standard hiring processes for filling positions in their members’ offices, that would be too logical for the federal government. Each member of Congress hires how he or she sees fit.
Each chamber has an organization to assist in hiring staff, but these organizations perform very particular functions which do not include standardizing job postings, screening applications or ensuring hiring processes are fair. The Senate Placement Office and the House Vacancy Announcement and Placement Service collect resumes and advertise vacancies, but hiring functions are performed by each member’s office.
So if there isn’t a single place to apply for jobs under members of Congress, how are new staffers selected? The short answer is it depends. When vacancies are advertised by one of the chambers’ placement organizations, Congressional offices receive hundreds if not thousands of resumes. Only the best of the best on paper draw interest. Remember, this competition is for jobs at the very bottom of the office. You’ll be making coffee, answering phones and taking the assignments no one else wants.
If you’re up for being the office grunt paying your dues, you need to know how to pursue Congressional jobs. The most effective way to get your foot in the door as a legislative correspondent, staff assistant or intern is to network. You need to make yourself stand out well before a member’s office advertises a job. The senior staffers don’t want to cull through hundreds of resumes. They’d rather have someone in mind.
Landing a Congressional job is much more like applying to work at a law firm than it is to a federal agency. The federal online job application system USAJobs won’t help you here except for maybe by helping you organize your resume. You need an entrepreneurial spirit to do what needs to be done to land a job on Capitol Hill. Work your contacts, and call in favors because that’s what it’ll take.
The Education and Experience You'll Need
There are no set education requirements for entry-level Congressional staffers, but many have an undergraduate degree and perhaps even a graduate degree in fields including political science, public policy, law, and communications. During college, many were involved in student government. The vast majority made good grades. Again, this similarity among job seekers is why networking can help you distinguish yourself from the crowd.
You don’t necessarily need any particular experience to be hired in a Congressional office, but it helps. Those with some experience are more likely to get a paid job instead of an unpaid internship.
What You'll Do
When you first sign onto a Congressional staffer job, you are assigned the tasks no one else wants to do. You may have graduated summa cum laude from a prestigious university, but that doesn’t mean you won’t get asked to make an afternoon coffee run. You’ll do whatever is asked of you because it’s all part of paying your dues.
Your first duties will likely be taking constituent phone calls and drafting written responses to letters. No one wants to take angry phone calls, so the new kid on the block gets stuck with it. Don’t take any of the negativity personally. After all, they’re not mad at you. They just want to express their anger and be heard.
When you’re assigned something more engaging like researching policy, you have a real opportunity to show your co-workers they should invest in your professional development. When you do something well, it means they don’t have to fix your work or do it themselves. They’ll give you more challenging work, and it’ll help you grow in your job. There is always something to learn. Once you’ve developed your skill set, you can start competing for higher level jobs in a Congressional office.
A key to success is being a team player. Everyone is working to make the Congressman look good. If you develop a good reputation among senior staffers, you can have a long career on Capitol Hill.
What You'll Earn
Your earnings will be meager. Interns are usually unpaid, and it they receive a stipend, it doesn’t go very far. Lower level staffers don’t make much either. Young staffers living in the Washington, DC, area often have several roommates (who are often Congressional staffers as well) to afford the high cost of living in the nation’s capital. According to a 2012 Washington Times article, the entry-level positions in the Senate pay on average $30,000 to $35,000 per year.
It isn’t until you reach the upper levels of working in a member’s office, you will continue to earn a low salary. Members of Congress pay their top employees well. Many make at or just below the maximum salaries members are authorized to pay. As of 2015, ordinary members earn $174,000 per year, and they can pay a staffer up to $172,500. So if you can make it to the top, the pay is pretty nice.
Members are allotted a set amount to fund their payrolls, so they have to make decisions on how to divvy up the money. Lower level staffers get the short end of the sick, and the staffers in charge make much more. You could think of it as a franchise trying to fill its roster. Star players earn the big bucks, and no-name players get what’s left.