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8 things I wish I’d known when I worked on Capitol Hill

‘My home life was a toxic mix of reheated pizza and C-SPAN,’ one former staffer admits

Your days on the Hill may be long, but the years will be short, former staffers warn. Above, staffers take the stairs in the Hart Senate Office Building in 2013. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Your days on the Hill may be long, but the years will be short, former staffers warn. Above, staffers take the stairs in the Hart Senate Office Building in 2013. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

OPINION — Working on Capitol Hill is the best of jobs and the worst of jobs, all rolled into one. The pay is low, the hours are long, and angry constituents aren’t wrong when they remind you that they pay your salary. But working on the Hill can also give staffers the chance, often at a young age, to build a résumé, make a positive difference in people’s lives, and literally change the world.

The intense experience can come and go in a flash, so I reached out to current and former Capitol Hill staffers to ask them what they’d tell their younger selves about the job that many remember as the hardest, most fun, and most rewarding of their professional lives.

The obvious advice you can already know — work hard, know your stuff, and build a great network. The less obvious wisdom only comes with experience, so here it is:

1. Choose (your boss) wisely

Nothing will shape your experience more than who you work for and what kind of a boss that person is. “Just because you’re offered a job doesn’t mean you have to accept it,” said Katy Carter, a legislative assistant-turned-horse trainer. “Heavily research the staff and member before you accept a job. It could save you a great deal of stress.” Former House staffer and Obama administration alum Juliette Johnson added, “Working on the Hill isn’t just a job, so you better believe in what you’re doing. Also, believe the rumors about nightmare bosses. They’re always true and probably even worse.”

2. Be kind

It might surprise some, but Hill veterans offered this insight again and again. Whether it’s your demeanor toward colleagues, Capitol Police or irate callers from three states over, it’s always remembered when you treat people well and when you don’t. Or, in the words of one longtime staffer: “Don’t be a jerk.”

Tom Taggart, a former staff assistant in the Senate, took endless abuse answering the phones in his Senate office, but he counsels junior staffers not to respond accordingly. “I know how you want to respond to these callers. Instead, say this as if you’re speaking to an old friend: ‘May you be happy and healthy. Thanks for calling.’ Your boss does the courageous every day. Honor that by countering ill-will with a bit of loving kindness.”

3. Write short

See how I just did that? Time is always tight on the Hill, and nobody wants to read 20 pages on anything. “Learn to write succinctly and quickly for one-minutes, constituent letters, speeches, etc.,” said Kate Emanuel, senior vice president at the Ad Council and a former House chief of staff. “I came from getting my master’s and wrote academically and had to dramatically switch over.”

4. Ask for more

“I would tell my younger self to request pay raises at every opportunity and to be a better advocate for myself,” said Donni Turner, a veteran Senate staffer who is now a senior education policy adviser for Sen. Bernie Sanders and the Senate Budget Committee. “When I first began working on the Hill, I thought if I just worked hard and did a really good job, I would be rewarded with pay raises and promotions. Not so! I had to learn to ask for them, and I was always successful.”

5. Master the mundane

Several former staffers stressed the importance of doing even the least glamorous jobs well. “If you are in the mail room or simply answering constituent letters, the task becomes tedious and the shine of being in D.C. wears off quickly,” said Adnan Zulfiqar, a former legislative assistant in the Senate who is now an assistant professor at Rutgers Law School. “You have to treat your time on the Hill like you are an anthropologist, quietly observing the culture around you and all the actors engaged in the drama. There are many lessons to be learned from that.”

ICYMI: McConnell gets choked up saying goodbye to longtime staffer Stew

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6. Max out your TSP

You don’t want this advice, but take it anyway. “Remember your future and put the full 5 percent into the Thrift Saving Plan from the first day you are eligible to get the full match,” said Mary Perko, a veteran of three Senate offices. “Don’t wait or do the minimum. You’re leaving money on the table.”

7. Get a life

If your job is your life, longtime staffers will tell you you’re doing it wrong. “Staffers give up a lot to be there. They work long hours, holidays, through major life events, miss little league games and ballet recitals. And the office, the institution and the city will take as much of you as you give,” said Rayanne McKeon, a former senior adviser to two senators. “Know where your hard lines are and don’t compromise them. You will lose your whole self if you do.”

Andy Kutler, a former legislative assistant to two senators and the author of newly released novel “The Batter’s Box,” adds, “I would tell my 23-year-old self, in very polite terms, to get a life. In my early Hill days, I wouldn’t leave the office until the early evening hours. And even then my home life was a toxic mix of reheated pizza and C-SPAN. … I wish I had followed a simple formula: Less CNN. More Senate softball league.”

8. Remember this

Whether you keep a journal, make mental notes, or just work to stay in the moment, find a way to live this experience fully and keep it with you. “I can equate it to parenthood in some ways by saying the days are long, but the years are so short,” said Allison Priebe, a former assistant press secretary in the Senate who now owns her own jewelry design business. “My advice — soak it all in.”

Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.

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