By Cristina Marcos - 04/06/11 10:37 PM EDT
The curtains would close on the Capitol Hill scene were it not for the staffers who work tirelessly backstage. While the lawmakers are the ones who cast the votes, their chiefs of staff, legislative aides, communications directors and schedulers are the people who get them where they need to be and guide them through each day.
While it is undeniably a high-pressure, fast-paced environment, staffers say Capitol Hill is the best place to be to help craft policy that affects the entire nation.
“I come from a town of 12,000 people in central Kentucky. I never thought I’d be in Washington, D.C., doing what I’m doing — it’s more an honor than an expectation,” said Matthew Ballard, the communications director for Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-Ind.). “I’m essentially living my version of the American Dream, because this is something I’ve always wanted to do, and I get to live it every day.”
For young interns hoping to move up through the hierarchy or for professionals looking to break into working on Capitol Hill, accomplished staffers such as Egee and Ballard can help explain the keys to success in the halls of Congress:
While the adage “It’s not about what you know, it’s about who you know” applies almost anywhere, the ability to create and maintain positive relationships with others in the office and people with other committees and members of Congress is the be-all, end-all of a career on Capitol Hill.
“At the end of the day, it’s simply all about customer service,” said Egee. “You have to treat the richest CEO to the lowliest janitor … with utmost respect.”
Meina Banh, special assistant to the chief of staff and legislative assistant for Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), stressed the need to make connections in unlikely places.
“I think what makes you an innovative and successful person — whether it’s a staffer or congressional leader — is the ability to say, ‘Hey, I can build bridges here where I never thought there would be bridges before,’” Banh said. “It keeps you pertinent and more well-known to groups you never thought that you would work with.”
Be able to adapt to a stressful workload
Not everyone can handle the stresses associated with a position on Capitol Hill. Everyone in a congressional office is always stressed on some level, and being able to manage one’s own stress with a sense of calm is crucial.
Daniel Oliver, executive assistant and office manager for Honda, emphasized the need to be able to effectively multitask under pressure. “You have to be extremely organized and you have to constantly keep several different balls in the air and juggle them at the same time,” he said.
Reiterating the need to maintain good relationships with others, Oliver added, “As Leon Panetta once told me, ‘Regardless of how busy things get, you always have time to be kind to people.’ ”
Do anything and everything, and do it well
There simply is no other way to earn promotions than paying one’s dues. After all, why would anyone want to give high-profile assignments to someone who can’t even do the most basic tasks well? Especially for new staffers, nothing should be considered too mundane — consider everything a learning opportunity.
“You have to make yourself available to opportunities and learn as much as possible. The more I can learn, I feel, the better I can do my job,” said Ballard. “We’ve all been there — we’ve all had to drive people around or get a cup of coffee. And at the end of the day, that hard work pays off.”
Egee shared that sentiment. “Do the little stuff flawlessly. If you’re asked to give a tour to a constituent or if you’re asked to order a flag for somebody, do it perfectly. Do it passionately,” he said. “Unless someone sees you do the little tiny mundane things perfectly and passionately, they’re never going to let you do the big things perfectly and passionately.”
Look for someone or something you believe in
“I choose personally to work for individuals that hold my same morals, my same values, and are men of integrity and strong character and stand by their convictions,” Ballard said. “Not only is [Bucshon] my boss and congressman, but he’s also a good mentor and role model for someone like me. It’s not necessarily what job or position I’ll be holding, but who I’ll be working for.”
“You have to be motivated, you have to be ambitious, but you also have to be selfless. You have to understand that in this line of work, in public service, that you’re doing this for the people in your district and for your boss,” said Oliver. “But that’s where the joy of the work comes from — that you are here to serve the people in your district.”