Capitol Hill staff get the message

“The goal is to do your boss’ job, do the job for your boss and not do this for your personal glory,” said John Feehery, who worked for Republicans in leadership on Capitol Hill for 15 years, and is a contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog. “These people hire you to accomplish some legislative goals and to help them get reelected. So you have to always be cognizant of that duty, and if you get confused as to why you’re working there, you better get that straight before you get yourself in trouble.”

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No matter whom you’re working for on Capitol Hill, being a staffer means “being an advocate for whatever position that your boss is taking,” said Brendan Daly, a former staffer for Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Managing the message might seem an obvious part of the job for the press secretary, who writes press releases and manages all media inquiries, but that rule also applies to staff from the entry-level assistant to the chief of staff, who oversees office operations. 

Since work is defined by the mission, it’s important to believe in the office goals. Essential qualities in a staffer include good communication and the ability to multitask, as well as getting along with co-workers. “You’re like a family; you spend a lot of time together,” Feehery said. Staffer camaraderie can even cross partisan lines.

A legislative correspondent from a House Republican office indicated that it’s important to be OK being constantly surrounded by people. The work environment, with its fast pace and almost overwhelming to-do lists, is one of her favorite things about her job, she said.

In a typical office, a legislative director oversees specifically position-related work done by the legislative correspondents (LCs) — who handle the mail, including hundreds of e-mails daily — and legislative assistants (LAs) — who research issues for briefings and craft letters used to respond to constituent mail. Policy issues are divided up among the LAs and become “their” issues.

Ultimately, staffing a member’s office on Capitol Hill includes the same day-to-day routines of any other office job, but it can also mean handling crises and responding to high-impact issues. It requires a certain type of personality.

“Your goal as a staffer is to best serve your boss, which means giving your boss the best advice without flying off the handle,” said Feehery. “If you’re too up-and-down, if you’re not an even personality, it can be kind of destructive. You have to be able to handle these things by not getting too emotional. It’s better to be calm, because there’s always something else that’s going to happen.”

Some things can be expected: Long hours, relatively low pay — in 2009, the average chief of staff received about a $120,000 salary, while the average entry-level staff assistant position could expect less than $30,000, according to information released by LegiStorm — and high-pressure environment. Other duties are surprising: For instance, since the scheduler manages all appointments for the member, the job sometimes doubles as that of an executive assistant, and could include unexpected duties like playing chauffeur.

Career staffers have been known to hop offices throughout their career. “If you’re in a congressional office, it can get tedious, so people decide to move into different things,” noted Feehery. “I think if you work in the leadership or the committee chairmanship, that’s very interesting work.”

One staff assistant for a Senate committee said she was grateful that she didn’t have the same job working for an individual member, where she would likely be answering constituent calls all day long.

Although senators’ staffs are larger than those of members of Congress, the same job title might carry different responsibilities in the House compared to the Senate. House offices typically have one staff assistant and one LC, while the duties of the LCs, LAs, and staff assistants are divided among more positions in Senate offices. But since a Senate office’s responsibilities include the entire state, a smaller collection of issues connects to a much larger number of people and related issues.

While there are certainly challenges to working on the Hill, there are many perks as well. A lawmaker is an impressive employer to tout to family and friends, for one. It is also a chance to learn about important issues in an environment where knowing facts matters. Pursuing an interest in a specific issue can add value to your work, Feehery points out. 

“The people who make the best staffers are the people who are the hungriest to learn,” he said.