Capitol Hill, specifically the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, are the centerpiece of Washington and our Federal government. W&L has an excellent Washington Term Program to introduce students to what goes on inside the Beltway. But securing a full-time job in Congress is often a tough venture. On graduation day 2005, I drove northeast from Lexington to D.C. with the idea that I would find a job in a Congressional office. I learned a lot in the years since, and I hope that some of my insights can help fellow Generals to get the job they want on Capitol Hill.
1. Follow your driving factor
Every newcomer to Washington, D.C. is drawn here for a different reason. Whether you crave the fast-paced environment or have a passion for policy, the Beltway has much offer. But jobs on Capitol Hill are in short supply and the line of folks who want to work there is getting longer. Recently, both houses of Congress trimmed salaries and cut their allotted billets. At the risk of stating the obvious, you need to want a job on Capitol Hill in order to earn one. Candidates for jobs in Congressional offices are competing with hundreds of qualified applicants at each step of the way. You will never have a job interview where you aren’t asked “Why do you want to work for this organization?” Follow your core principles. A jobseeker can switch political parties, but typically you can only switch early and switch once.
Your driving factor should extend also to the individual for whom you will work, such as the Senator or committee chair. Washington is a town driven by personalities. Hitching your wagon to the right person can sometimes benefit your career more than the actual merits of your work. Likewise, elections, scandals, or other events beyond your control can alter your career for better or worse. Capitol Hill will continually force you to adjust and adapt. Remember what brought you here and choose the course that is best for you. Perhaps you might even pass up a salaried job in one organization in order to accept an internship with the office you really want to join. When in doubt, follow your principles and your driving factor.
2. Leverage your home base
Just like candidates for elected office, candidates for positions on Capitol Hill would do well to leverage their networks and play up their hometown roots. Most vacancy announcements will explicitly require an applicant to have a home state connection. Whether you grew up, attended school, went to summer camp, visited grandparents, or otherwise spent a fair amount of time in a particular state or region, those connections are vital to building a relationship with a prospective employer. Because all politics is local, as Tip O’Neill coined, House and Senate offices need to ensure their front-line staff in Washington can connect with the constituents back home.
Beyond your local ties, you should leverage your network of friends, alumni, and acquaintances to hear about vacancies and sharpen your qualifications. Pressing the flesh, meeting new people, and asking smart questions are key. Recruit a network of mentors to provide mentoring guidance or otherwise aid your job search, but be sure to take sole ownership of your own prospects. Like retail politics, networking is more art than science. Ask senior colleagues for an “informational interview” to gain practice and expand your understanding of Congress and its protocols. And whenever you do receive help in your job search, handwritten thank-you notes go a long way.
While I was a working as a full-time paid intern in a House leadership office, I requested an informational interview with the Chief of Staff of my home state Congressman. The office had no job vacancies at the time, but I learned from the interviewer and made a favorable impression. Two months later when a Staff Assistant position became available in that office, I was the first person they called. I interviewed and got the job; the vacancy was never announced publicly. Not everyone has the same experience, but leveraging your base is a prime way to get hired.
3. Act as if every day is an interview
It can be easy to let your guard down in Washington. This town has a vibrant mix of culture and an abundance of young professionals. But the walls have ears and every organization has one or more staffers under age 30 who make important decisions in the office. August is a particularly relaxed time when offices seem to hibernate and the pace of work crawls. Don’t succumb to the “recess attitude” – instead, use every chance you get to network, interview, or take on extra work to demonstrate your capabilities to an organization. Some of the best advice I received as a Hill intern was, if I had a question about a task I was performing, to first exhaust every other avenue at my disposal to try to find the answer myself before asking my boss or a coworker. Congress will challenge you – teach yourself to be resourceful.
If you are fortunate enough to land a gig with your desired organization, don’t let up. Your first job in an office is often the hardest and most important. Answering phones or writing responses to constituents is the lifeblood of Congressional offices – a single bad experience with an intern or staffer can often change someone’s vote in November. You will need to demonstrate yourself continually as an asset to your organization in order to move up the career ladder. Keep acting as if every day is an interview and take on new responsibilities whenever possible. At a certain point, you will have to choose whether to specialize in press/communications, legislative policy, or scheduling/office manager. Don’t worry too much about these roles at first. Just keep taking on extra work and handling each additional duty without neglecting your primary tasks.
4. Be willing to start small
Rarely do folks get their dream job on the first try. Almost every senior staffer in Congress has served in the lowliest position in the office at some point. Every industry requires newcomers to “pay their dues” and politics is no different. Influential positions are earned. The current House Majority Leader was once the driver for his hometown Congressman.
On Capitol Hill, sometimes the best first step is to just get your foot in the door and worry about your job title later. An unpaid internship in a well-connected Congressional office is a thankless job – and also the best way to get hired. As I mentioned, the entry level jobs in a Congressional office are the hardest yet also the most important. Senior staff measure interns and new hires by their ability to make the trains run on time and handle any new responsibilities as needed. It will not take long for the merits of your work to be recognized and rewarded. You will be the first person in line when an internal vacancy opens. You will hear about other Congressional job opportunities long before they’re listed on Brad Traverse. Salaried staffers will voluntarily tap their own networks to circulate an intern’s resume or arrange job interviews if that intern puts in his or her time and demonstrates that he or she is a reliable team player. If it’s an election year like 2012 is, you might have to go wherever you’re needed most – either on the campaign trail, or picking up the slack in the D.C. office after the senior staff take leave to run the campaign.
My first paid Hill job – in a House leadership office – involved setting out lunches during policy meetings and cleaning up after the Members. It was not glamorous. I spoke with Congressmen all the time… when they asked me if there were any jelly donuts left. But everyone has to start at the bottom and learn the ropes. Congress has its own protocols. Jobseekers who are willing to start small and perform the thankless tasks are the ones an organization will retain and promote.
5. Have an exit strategy
The unfortunate reality is that Capitol Hill is a very harsh environment. Staffers come and go. Lawmakers come and go. Sometimes even Congressional committees are created or dissolved. When I lived on East Capitol Street with four roommates who all had Congressional jobs like mine, I never imagined that six years later that none of us would be working on Capitol Hill (we are now a political reporter, campaign manager, attorney, intelligence analyst, and management consultant to Federal clients). Jobs in Congressional offices are inherently transitory because of elections. At some point in your Hill career, whether your member gets voted out of office or a better opportunity arises, you may seek greener pastures elsewhere. Jobs in Congress can yield unrivaled experience and be a powerful springboard to other opportunities. Just keep in mind that life exists outside the Rotunda and your career path can go wherever you want.
Hugh Yeomans graduated from the Williams School of Commerce in 2005. He served in two leadership offices in the House of Representatives, as an aide to a Congressman, as a Federal agency liaison to Congress, and on a presidential campaign. He even interned for a Senator on the other side of the aisle in W&L’s Washington Term Program. He is currently a management consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton and resides in Arlington, VA. Please feel free to contact him at HughFYeomans@gmail.com and/or join the LinkedIn group “W&L Alumni in Government.”
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