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Secrets From Capitol Hill’s Back Rooms: How to Get Hired on the Hill

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Getting your foot in the door is just one way to land a job on Capitol Hill. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Want that Capitol Hill job? Doesn’t “congressional staffer” have such a nice ring to it?

Of course it does. Working on Capitol Hill is more than just an impressive résumé bullet. It’s interesting and rewarding work, and you’re surrounded by bright and energetic people in the center of Washington, D.C. But how do you scale the obstacles to become a full-fledged, paid staffer?

Everyone has individual stories, but there are some universal truths about the hiring process on Capitol Hill. Yes, this topic has been discussed before (see here, here and here), but this time Roll Call has brought in some qualitative data. After a dozen interviews** with people involved in the hiring process on Capitol Hill, some themes came up consistently about what to know about getting to the Hill.

I nterning Is Still Best: “The intern track is still the most common, especially on the House side,” said Bradford Fitch, a former House and Senate staffer who is now president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, which provides training and research to congressional offices. Hiring managers in the House said current interns are the first place they start to look once an opening becomes available and said they prefer to hire current or former interns whenever possible.

“With interns, you know who you are getting, you know how they work and they have a sense for you. You don’t spend months saying, ‘This is how [the congressman] works.’ It helps streamline the process,” said one Democratic chief of staff whose office promoted from within or hired an intern whenever possible. That chief started as an intern himself and progressed up the chain, landing in the top spot after 10 years.

Since many jobs are entry level, offices picked people to be groomed for more senior positions. “You aren’t just hiring someone to answer the phones,” said a senior House chief of staff. “You’re hiring them to take on for bigger things.”

One former Democratic House legislative director refused to hire for an entry level position without Capitol Hill intern experience: “I didn’t want to pay someone to learn how to do the basics of front-desk work. That is what interning is for.”

Exception to the Rule: Interns might be the go-to candidate for entry-level jobs, but for positions that require a specific experience, such as a press secretary, or years of expertise, such as a legislative assistant with committee experience, offices often look outside to find a match. Positions that require a strong policy background, such as a Senate or committee legislative assistant, benefit from years of work in that policy arena. One Senate legislative director said he preferred a familiarity with Capitol Hill when hiring a legislative assistant; actual Capitol Hill work experience was not as crucial.

Beware of Job Postings: Oh, those job announcements. We’ve all seen the ones making the rounds on listservs, asking for cover letters and writing samples. For an aspiring job seeker, this seems like the best place to start, right? Wrong, unfortunately.

Many House offices do not advertise any of their job openings. The ones that do send a job announcement often eschew the public list and instead send an email to trusted colleagues, including current and former staffers and people connected to the district or state. One office preferred asking other member offices it worked closely with, either on a committee or within a delegation. Some offices sent job announcements more widely to lists such as “Democratic House Chiefs.”

“If you post a job widely, you get 300 résumés. They all look the same; everyone went to college,” said a Democratic chief of staff who preferred not to send out a job announcement. The sheer number of résumés to wade through would be “a waste of [his] time.”

Those who did send out a job announcement widely often had a candidate in mind already. “You want to see what the environment is like,” said Chris McCannell, a former House chief of staff who now leads the financial service practice at APCO. “You want to see who else is out there on the market and make sure you aren’t missing anyone.” McCannell preferred hiring internally, but he did send occasional job announcements to his office’s network, including the Democratic leader’s office, and through paid sites, such as Roll Call Jobs.

For a senior position, external candidates often served as a comparison point for the internal candidates, who were still considered front-runners. “If you keep promoting from within, you want to make sure that you still have the best candidates in your office,” said one House Democratic chief of staff.

“Everyone should have to compete for a job and go through an interview process,” said a senior House Democratic chief of staff. She had already decided on an internal promotion, but went through a larger job search and interview process to make sure the member of Congress was on board. “It’s good for the member to know they have options,” she said. The internal candidate ultimately got the job.

Some offices go through all the work of a large, wide search, yet still hire from within. One House office sent a job announcement widely, received and sorted through 600 applications, and after extensive rounds of interviewing, decided to promote an internal candidate.

Exception to the Rule: Even the most ambitious and brilliant junior staffers are not always ready for a mid-level role. “Some positions require a policy depth that takes more time to develop,” said a House GOP chief of staff who preferred to promote internally but relied on external recommendations, especially when staffing new members’ offices. This chief went through the hundreds of job bank résumés that new member offices received, but she relied heavily on word-of-mouth recommendations. “Those were the ones that got the first interviews,” she said.

The District and State Still Matter: Every single office said the district and state connection is important, especially at the junior level. “The diversity of the district matters,” said one former House chief of staff. “For a position like staff assistant, who is answering the phone and interacting with constituents, you want someone who has that familiarity.” One chief gave preference to specific races he felt best suited the district makeup, particularly regarding an entry-level job with a wide application pool.

Exception to the Rule: When members switch committee assignments, they often need someone with experience pertinent to the particular committee, and the local connection is not paramount. One House GOP office received an “A” Committee spot and sought someone with that particular experience. A GOP Senate office sought legislative assistants who matched primarily on ideology and asked for résumés from the Republican Study Committee and other like-minded groups.

Capitol Hill Is Still the Place to Be: Whatever the perception and public poll numbers, there are still hundreds of interested applicants for Capitol Hill positions. Each hiring manager spoke of the need for a good match, a person who would grow into more positions and an effective way to hire them. All felt they had more qualified candidates than spots. “People have been looking for a Hill job ever since there was a Congress. Where else in your early 20s can you feel like you’re making world-changing decisions?” asked Gary Serota, former president of the Congressional Management Foundation and co-author of “Capitol Jobs: An Insider’s Guide To Finding A Job in Congress.”

“The interest ebbs and flows, but Capitol Hill is always incredibly popular,” Fitch said. “Applications flow even more after wave elections. It happened in 1994, 2006 and 2010, which were wave elections. The people on the winning side were excited about it; suddenly it’s exciting and cool to be a public servant. It results in an increase of applications for people who want to work on Capitol Hill.”

A new administration is a good time to look for a Capitol Hill job. “There is a mass flowing of humanity when thousands of jobs open up in the administration. It opens up a lot more churn,” Fitch said. “You can apply in January, but you can also apply in the spring or summer, because there will be turnover.”

Exception to the Rule: The decline in Congress’ popularity might have curbed at least some of the interest in working there. “We’re probably missing out on some good applicants today,” Serota said, who has noticed a change in the interest in working on Capitol Hill as compared to 25 years ago. “The appeal for new graduates is toward Wall Street, finance, marketing instead. People aren’t seeing the ability to make a difference as much as they might have years ago because of the reputation of the institution. That is one more reason why we need a better functioning Congress.”

**Interviews were conducted via phone and in person from July 23 to Sept. 10. All interviewers were granted anonymity unless otherwise indicated.

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