Exit strategy

Ah, the memories of life as a Hill staffer. The occasional strolls through the Capitol Rotunda. The blood-pumping action on the House floor. The camaraderie among like-minded colleagues.

But wait. Remember those late-night conference calls, or working that second job because the $22,500 congressional salary didn’t cover all the bills? And who misses the petty “He didn’t get back to me” or “Let’s forget to invite her to the meeting” antics that can be a part of business on Capitol Hill?

Although congressional aides leave for a variety of reasons, they have one thing in common. For all the good memories and appreciation of the unique experience, few have let time erase those not-so-happy recollections of long hours, overwhelming workloads and underwhelming paychecks.

Many ex-staffers do remember their old jobs fondly, speaking of the historic events they witnessed or the roles they played in landmark legislation. But in the end, many concede that their old lifestyle was one that few can sustain.

If one thing is universal in the experience of being a Hill staffer, it is the exit. According to 2007 statistics gathered by the House of Representatives’ Office of the Chief Administrative Officer, staffers’ average tenure is 6.8 years, and 57 percent don’t even complete four years.  

Aides leave for any number of reasons. Many get married and start a family, and say they cannot imagine trying to balance their personal lives with professional demands. Others latch on to an intriguing policy issue but quickly discover that Congress’s short attention span prevents them from researching their passion in depth. So they look off the Hill for job opportunities.

Others consider survival. These are the staffers who leave because they can’t afford to stay.

One former Senate Democratic aide left the Hill primarily for financial reasons. In 2000, she started out at a $22,500 annual salary despite holding a master’s degree, which forced her to work nights and weekends at Bed, Bath & Beyond. She left the Hill a year and four months later.

“Staying on the Hill was a financial impossibility for me,” she says, adding that her time in the Senate paid off. Her Capitol Hill résumé entry has helped her score other jobs in government relations and political communications.

For others, leaving the Hill is more about the need for life to move on. A case in point is Gary Palmquist, 40, manager of legislative affairs at the National Federation of Independent Business, who worked on the Hill for a decade.

“I’m really proud of the experience I had on the Hill, and I think what I miss is [that] I always felt like I was serving my country,” says Palmquist, who worked for former Reps. Ken Bentson (D-Texas) and Bob Clement (D-Tenn.) and finished up as Rep. Dennis Cardoza’s (D-Calif.) legislative director. “That might be perceived as corny in some quarters. I always felt like in some small way I was helping our democracy work.”

In the end, he explains, “I just felt like I had done everything I wanted to do on the Hill. It just felt like it was time. It was time to take the next step in my career.”

Former aide Heather Wilson (no relation to the New Mexico Republican) calls her stint on the Hill “a once-in-a-lifetime experience.” But the 25-year-old left to become a doula, a modern-day midwife’s assistant, because her other legislative duties kept her from exploring women’s issues in depth.

“In the end, I didn’t find [working on the Hill] personally fulfilling,” she says.

Wilson worked for the House Appropriations Committee for two years and for Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) for one year before leaving the Hill last year. Wilson wants to eventually be a midwife.

“I am so passionate about maternal health, and I wasn’t able to dig into that issue with any of the depth that I was wanting,” she says.

Danica Petroshius left the Hill not to assist in childbirth but to experience it. She worked as a Senate aide for 10 years, ascending to chief of staff to Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), before leaving in 2005 to get married and start a family. In January she had her first child.

“When I was getting married, the biggest issue [about working on the Hill] was lifestyle,” the 38-year-old says. “It’s a 24-7 job.”

Petroshius and other Hill aides are quick to point out aspects of congressional work that they do miss — namely, the energy. Many talk about the adrenaline rush that propelled them through the busy days, the excitement they felt when helping craft legislation, and the pride in holding a unique spot in the country’s democratic process.

Many ex-staffers find new ways to re-create the high-impact, high-stakes environment they grew accustomed to while working on the Hill, but most admit it’s just not the same.

“There’s definitely a certain energy that comes with working on the Hill that is usually lacking on the private sector side,” says Jason Roe, speaking with The Hill by phone as he sipped mojitos by a pool in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

Roe, 37, left the Hill last year after working as Rep. Tom Feeney’s (R-Fla.) chief of staff. He’s now a lobbyist at Federal Strategy Group, but he keeps the same long hours he worked on the Hill — not because his new job requires it of him but because it’s in his nature.

Petroshius also acknowledges the unique energy of the Hill. But now, she says, she is energized by starting a family and launching her own business as a policy consultant.

To be sure, some former Hill staffers return after venturing out to the private sector and not finding it fulfilling.
One senior House GOP aide has left the Hill twice — without much success.

“I was bored,” he says. “There is something important for each of us, for the soul, if you will, to be involved in something greater than yourself. And working on the Hill can offer someone that opportunity.”

Other former Hill staffers share that sentiment but are content keeping their Hill experience in the past.

“Do I ever miss the Hill? Let me see: more pay, shorter hours, expense account, and get[ting] to travel to fundraisers in cool places. Ummmmmm, no,” writes a lobbyist and former GOP staffer in an e-mail.

Petroshius is more sentimental. She returns to the Hill from time to time to help with a briefing, but rather than feeling an itch to return, she feels empathy for the staffers who look overworked and poorly rested.

“I kind of fulfilled my Hill dream, so I don’t really miss it,” she says. “I got the best out of the experience I had. I feel like I got a Ph.D. on the Hill.”

Bethany Little, 34, vice president for policy and federal advocacy at the Alliance for Excellent Education, also has no regrets about leaving. “I absolutely loved it,” said the former education legislative assistant to Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.). “I think it was one of the best jobs in the world, especially for a young person.”

In the end, she says, it was the pace and demands that caused her to leave. “I would love to return to the Hill, but I can’t, at least for the near future, see a lifestyle that makes it possible,” she says.

Still, she admits, “I miss it so much.”