Help not wanted

It’s that time of year again — when giant blue bins, overflowing with papers, folders and office supplies, sit like new-age tombstones outside the offices of members who won’t be returning next Congress.

As if sorting through stacks of documents, pictures and memories weren’t enough of a task to cram into a week, staffers are faced with the looming reality of finding a new job come 2009.

With at least 36 fewer Republicans in elected office, many GOP staffers find themselves in a bottleneck scenario, racing against their colleagues for the few job openings on Capitol Hill.

“There’re a lot of unemployed Hill staffers on the Republican side right now looking for jobs, and there are too many applicants and not enough jobs, so it’s obviously very competitive,” said Brian Crawford, chief of staff for Rep. Ric Keller (R-Fla.), who lost his reelection race.

The majority of GOP staffers would like to stay on the Hill, but refuse to switch parties for the sake of a paycheck. Recognizing the slim number of openings, many are eyeing K Street for jobs, considering leaving politics altogether, thinking about returning to school or hoping for a miracle.

“I’m still sort of wondering if my parents have a trust fund that they never told me about,” joked Joe Brettell, communications director for Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.), who lost her reelection race.

Brettell, like many others, is looking for another job on the Hill.

He’s thankful for his experience in Musgrave’s office and sees his skill set as highly useful for incoming members.

“We’ve got a very experienced office here that knows how to help a freshman member avoid pitfalls,” said Brettell. “When you’ve got a new member, particularly a Republican, coming into what’s going to be a very tricky environment with the rather large Democratic majority, folks can utilize their experience to be a real asset for them.”

As dire as their situation is, it could be worse.

“A lot of the campaign staffs are already filing for unemployment,” said Brettell. “So one of the luxuries we have is to take a couple more months to find something.”

Departing offices had to turn in all their printers, fax machines and computers by Nov. 24. They had to be out of the office by Dec. 1, which means they will have to continue their job search from home or a cubicle in the basement of the Rayburn House Office Building, which is outfitted with a telephone, desk and laptop.

“When I first came here to work, that’s where I showed up, this room in Rayburn with all these little desks shoved in there together and boxes piled high,” said Michele Rager, who has worked as an executive assistant and scheduler for Musgrave since she was elected in 2002.

“One day you’re working for a congresswoman and have everything at your fingertips, and the next day you’re out on the porch,” she said.

Rager’s daughter, Jessica Rager, also works for Musgrave as her office manager. Jessica was hired after interning in the office, and said she has grown attached to the sense of family, both literally and figuratively, and has not yet moved on from her years working for the Colorado lawmaker.

“I’m not at peace with what the voters chose at all,” she said. “I don’t feel completely mentally prepared to move on. It’s hard for me to interview and to get excited about other jobs when it’s still fresh. And it’s hard because I feel like I have to hurry up and jump on it or I’m going to lose the very few jobs that there are for me.”

While the job market is competitive, it is the sense of family within the offices that allows for staffers and their bosses to network and share résumé tips, contacts and job opening notices.

It’s also that sense of family that made Musgrave once take every staffer to see the top of the Capitol dome or out on the Speaker’s balcony to witness a fresh snow fall over a twilit Capitol Hill. That, Jessica Rager says, is impossible to shake.

“We’ve had such a great experience,” she said. “So it’s hard to feel like there’s anything better out there. We just have to remember that we have had experiences here that have prepared us for bigger and better things, but it’s hard to think that we’re not at the top and everything goes downhill from here. But that’s ridiculous because this has prepared us to be qualified for a lot of other things.”

Michele Rager reasoned: “Marilyn feels very responsible for all of us and I think what she probably doesn’t realize is that just sitting under her and watching how she works, we’re taking away great truths from that.”

Others are looking for another line of work. Before Shauna Christensen worked on defense and veterans’ issues as Musgrave’s legislative correspondent, she was in the Air Force.

Christensen, who is looking for a job in defense consulting or with the Department of Defense, remarked, “I’m actually one of the few within the office that’s looking to get off the Hill.”