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On Capitol Hill, Staffers’ Work Ethic Can’t Be Underrated

Interested in working on Capitol Hill? Take it from Cathy Travis, a longtime staffer turned author, that it’s going to be a harder job than you expected. Travis spent 25 years on Capitol Hill before retiring in 2008, working for members including Bill Alexander, D-Ark., and Solomon P. Ortiz, D-Texas.

Travis imparted her wisdom to CQ Roll Call readers in a brief interview about her new book, “Manifesto: Staffing on Capitol Hill.” The main takeaway: Be ready to work.

Q. You were a staffer on Capitol Hill for years. What changed in your time there? Have you seen different trends over the years in the way business is conducted?

A: The biggest difference in the conduct of our business is the compulsive shirking of paying the bills, which began in March of 2001. We used to fight about — and negotiate over — appropriations bills, and the worst legislative sin was slipping past the beginning of the fiscal new year in October.

In the 1980s, there was a Democratic Congress and a Republican president. Congress would send the president a bill that displeased him; the president vetoed it. Congress either overrode the veto or stripped out the offending language and sent it right back, and the president signed it. That’s how it’s supposed to work.

The 1990s birthed the legislative strategy on the Hill of trashing members’ personal lives. Newt Gingrich perfected this art; awful as it was for democracy, it was a wildly successful tactic.

But even then, we were paying the bills. After early 2001, Congress adopted an informal strategy of never passing final appropriations bills; we fought like crazy over them but never concluded them. Today, Congress still cannot pass final spending bills.

In this decade, negotiations between House leadership and the White House/Senate leaders are not about spending; rather, negotiations are conducted over whether or not to pay the bills we’ve already incurred. That’s exactly the opposite of how it’s supposed to work. It’s even unconstitutional to question the payment of any U.S. debt (14th Amendment, Sec. 4).

And it is an unholy mess. Redistricting has virtually guaranteed this trend continues until at least 2022.

Q. For a new staffer, what’s the best piece of advice you can give them?

A: Work your butt off. Know your place — you are not in charge, and your life is going to get yanked around all hours of the day and night. Developing events you can’t control are the constant. You are an adviser, not the final authority; do not get ahead of your boss.

Q. What are some of the common misconceptions about being a Hill staffer?

A: The misconception is that this is all glamour … and your boss is in desperate need of your (often early 20s) wisdom. Rather, offices are cramped, hours are brutal and the impact of a single member is negligible. No matter how smart and talented you are, your value to a member is most often based on sheer work ethic and longevity.

Q. What are the top rookie mistakes of new members and new staff?

A: Members often want to handle staff decisions (hiring, firing, salary, etc.), when they should focus on a chief, then let the chief handle the icky — and constant — staffing matters. They should review, but not adjudicate, dinky staff stuff. They get pulled so many ways on policy and politics, it’s best to let the chief deal with staff issues.

There are so many rookie mistakes for new staffers; but primarily the mistakes are substituting their judgment for their boss’s (or for the chief or [legislative director]), and talking out of school. Remember the political axiom “those who talk don’t know, and those who know don’t talk.”

The motivation behind “Manifesto: Staffing Capitol Hill” was entirely to help new staffers avoid obvious mistakes.

Q. Final piece of advice for someone who wants to get a job on Capitol Hill?

A: Understand the essence of the job, the backbreaking hours, the delicacy of the work. Be willing to take an unpaid position as a fellow or intern in an office to get valuable experience as you look for a paying job. That experience can make all the difference in competing for jobs in other offices, or the office where you work for free.

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