Paying the Bills | Hill Navigator

Work on Capitol Hill can be rewarding, both intellectually and financially

Posted May 7, 2013 at 12:24pm

Working on Capitol Hill brings many things: valuable experience, key contacts, career growth and, not least of all, a way to pay the bills. Yes, public service is its own reward. But even starry-eyed staffers need to pay the rent or mortgage — or pay down law school debt. No one goes into politics or public policy to get rich. But neither does one need to be a pauper. So how do you get more money? This week’s Hill Navigator seeks to provide answers regarding how to better position yourself for a raise and how to graciously handle it if the answer is “nay.”

Q. My office has cut our salaries because of the sequester! Is there really any way to negotiate a higher salary on the Hill? Every time I try, I get the whole “our budget is tight” answer.

A. Oh, the sequester: rearing its ugly head and affecting people’s lives. Sadly you’re one of many people across the country who is seeing a smaller paycheck as a result. But Hill Navigator is not here to talk politics; we’re here to talk money. And if you believe you’re up for a raise, here are some ways to go about it:

1. Do your homework. All the Capitol Hill salaries are online on sources such as LegiStorm. So do some research as to what other people in a similar position are making. Take into account as many factors as you can, including age and level of experience, as well as how many years you have been with that particular office. If you’re making similar amounts, it won’t necessarily hurt your case, but if you can show a dome-sized disparity, then your office might be willing to pay a fair Capitol Hill market price.

2. Ask when it’s time. Don’t bring up a raise when you’re discussing something else (such as vote recommendations or a mail report or the Longworth lunch special). Bring it up when it’s appropriate — at an annual or six-month review, or at a time set aside to talk about your future goals with your boss or chief of staff.

And if your office does not have such structured meetings in place, ask to set up one. Even if you have to wait until a quiet recess to do it, you’ll have the full attention of your supervisors, and perhaps they’ll admire your initiative for talking about the future.

3. Do as much negotiating up front as you can. It’s harder to ask for a raise in an office where you’re already working than to negotiate upfront when you’re on the brink of accepting a job.

If and when you do get the job offer, this is the ideal time to ask for more money. Give a reason. Perhaps you have a relevant graduate degree or you have a particular understanding of the Keystone XL oil pipeline that is beneficial to your boss’ state. Even if they meet you halfway — or turn you down — you still have the job. And most offices are willing to give a good-faith gesture to show they want their new hires to feel valued.

4. Take the “no” graciously. To get back to the initial question: If your office is making budget cuts or citing the sequester or paying too much for its direct-mail program, there might be no room to spare in the budget. No matter how effective the argument, the answer about your raise may be “sorry, but no.”

Be gracious about it. Tell them you value working there and want to continue to be an asset. Ask when you can revisit the topic — budgets can change in as few as six months. And finally, see if there is something else you can get instead: perhaps it’s that senior legislative assistant title or a few more vacation days. Something tangible can go a long way toward feeling valued even without dollar signs attached.

Got a question, concern or complaint about navigating life on Capitol Hill? Email us at or submit online at All submissions are treated anonymously.