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New progressive pipeline funnels jobs to the Hill

Organizers say the political left lacks the talent development network that exists on the right

Hill staffers and others wait in a long line to enter the Dirksen Building on Jan. 22, 2018, with only certain doors to Senate office buildings open as Congress worked to end the government shutdown. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Hill staffers and others wait in a long line to enter the Dirksen Building on Jan. 22, 2018, with only certain doors to Senate office buildings open as Congress worked to end the government shutdown. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Even for an ambitious go-getter, versed in policy, a job on Capitol Hill can seem out of reach — especially without a costly unpaid congressional internship on your résumé, connections forged on a political campaign or a deep-pocketed donor in the family.

But a new recruitment effort by the nonprofit arm of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and a coalition of advocacy groups has opened up another pathway to the marbled hallways of Congress.

At least 15 unlikely congressional staffers have secured jobs on Capitol Hill with the endorsement of the Progressive Talent Pipeline — a new push to enlist and train progressives of diverse backgrounds for congressional staff positions.

The project came together hastily last year, just weeks before a midterm election that ushered in a racially diverse freshman class that grew the ranks of the Progressive Caucus to nearly 100 members.

“It fits well with the political awakening of the moment,” said David Segal, executive director of Demand Progress, which is co-leading the project. “I think a lot of people have seen Congress as an abstract, monolithic bureaucracy. But there’s this increasing recognition of Congress as a place to make real change.”

Pipeline organizers put out calls on job sites, social media and listservs for applicants with a “deep commitment to social, economic, and environmental justice” — people unlikely to swiftly move through the revolving door to the private sector. They combed through 1,000 applications to form a roster of 170 people, including academics, environmental activists and union organizers.

Those 170 individuals still have to be vetted by the offices they apply to, but can tout being a part of the pipeline’s pool.

The project emphasizes the importance of historically disenfranchised people shaping public policy, so organizers have tried to make the pool “as diverse as possible, along every axis,” Segal said.

Women make up half of the roster, and people of color about 40 percent.

Recruits completed training in December that included instruction on the appropriations process and congressional rules, an overview of macroeconomics and how staffers can most effectively work with activists, and a crash course on key policy areas such as immigration and criminal justice.

Separately, the Congressional Progressive Caucus launched a nonprofit policy center last fall with the goal of hiring a staff of nine as well as five fellows to be placed in the offices of progressive members. 

Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal, now a co-chair of the caucus, emphasized the importance of building that kind of infrastructure.

“What that allows us to do is … connect all the policy research, work that’s being done on the outside, the organizing network, and the strategy to the work that’s being done on the inside,” Jayapal told CNN last year.

The Progressive Talent Pipeline grew out of a recognition that the political left lacks the well-resourced network of launch pads for early- and mid-career policymakers and communications experts that exists on the right.

On-ramps to congressional staff positions for conservatives include talent development programs funded by The Heritage Foundation, the Charles Koch Institute, The Federalist Society, the Tax Foundation and the Mercatus Center, according to the pipeline’s website.

“Conservatives got this message decades ago,” Justin Talbot-Zorn, a senior policy adviser at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, another partner in the project, wrote in The American Prospect last year. “There’s hardly anything comparable on the center or center-left.”

But in the long term, retaining a diverse and talented set of congressional staffers will require increasing their pay.

As salaries have stagnated and morale has suffered, staffers have increasingly traded jobs in the public interest for private-sector work.

“Those empty rooms are being filled by outside organizations and lobbyists,” Segal said.

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