What Political Scientists Can Learn from Working on Capitol Hill

In 2018, I worked from January through July in a House office as part of the American Political Science Association’s Congressional Fellowship program after my friend’s father encouraged me to apply. He had been a political science PhD student who left academia to work for Senator Hubert Humphrey after his fellowship. For political scientists on the job market, it is an exceptional postdoctoral fellowship, a great way to stay grounded, and potentially a way of transitioning to a career outside of academia.

Below, I outline some of the insights from my experience, focusing on comparisons with academia. These are my observations and may not be representative of the experiences of other congressional fellows. Fellows can work either in individual offices or committees, and either the House or the Senate. I worked in an individual House office, where there is more opportunity to get to know the representative or even become good friends. A Senate office is more like a small business, with more employees that are typically better paid and more focused on a few areas of expertise.

First of all, House staffers are the unsung heroes of Capitol Hill. Almost all are college graduates, many with advanced degrees, law degrees, and even PhDs. A former lawyer staffed the front desk in our office. Most are working more than 40 hours a week for less than $40K or even $30K, in one of the most expensive cities in the world. People are giving up higher private sector pay for the privilege of serving in one of the “world’s greatest deliberative bodies,” and moving up in either in either party politics, K Street, or the bureaucracy. One person I met interned in a different office for a year, without pay, in order to make the connections to work in a poorly paid capacity in another office.

During periods of major legislation or a shut down, staffers often work late nights or weekends. (My office did not require this of congressional fellows). When Congress is not in recess, one needs to wear a suit and tie in a hot and humid city. Outside of official work hours, most staffers do volunteer work when their representative is running in a competitive election (rules of the APSA congressional fellowship prohibit this). People rarely take breaks, returning as quickly as possible to the office after lunch or a brief walk around the halls of Congress to stretch. While supervisors might not scold a staffer for taking breaks, staffers might feel the pressure to keep breaks to a minimum because everyone else in the office keeps breaks to a minimum. Lunch breaks and coffee breaks often feel like work because they are used to network, and one needs to work hard to create a good impression and build the relationships necessary for success on the Hill.

There is often little to show for all of this hard work in either pay or accomplishment. Passing legislation is extremely difficult, and new events might require you to drop something you spent a lot of time on. You might spend a lot of time working on a policy, only to have the representative say it will not work in the end. Where output is so hard to achieve and difficult to measure, input provides a real signal of one’s dedication to public service, the office, or the party.

Most House staffers are assigned to a pretty wide portfolio. Among the issues in my portfolio were defense, education, financial regulation, guns, health care, Native American affairs, the post office, small business, STEM, trade, and veteran affairs. Staffers are responsible for meeting with interest groups in these issue areas and writing up summaries for the office. Fortunately, help in understanding policies is available from your own party’s committee staff (committee staff working for the other party will not respond to you) and the Congressional Research Service (CRS). At the end of my fellowship, I still felt like I had only scratched the surface of some of these issues.

In my opinion, the amount of personnel in the House is inadequate to help representatives properly scrutinize the bills being proposed in Congress, let alone help representatives develop new policies. Perhaps this is a deliberate effort by congressional parties to rush legislation without adequate consideration. Given how thin a staffer’s attention is stretched, information provided by lobbyists and interest groups is an important resource in helping staffers cope with their time constraints. Democratic theorists are all too aware of all of the problematic implications for the public good, especially when costs are dispersed and benefits for interest groups are concentrated. Alexander Hertel-Fernandez’ State Capture argues that this is much worse at the state level, where most state legislators have even fewer staffers.

Unlike solo research in academia, an entire team depends on you to avoid mistakes in your research. An academic’s work is reviewed for months or even years by peers, and is not typically subject to humiliation among the broader public even when one makes mistakes. A staffer needs to complete work much more quickly, often hustling to finish a task in days or hours while a stack of new folders awaits. If your mistake causes your representative to obtain viral negative publicity, you endanger that representative’s career. If fear of letting teammates down makes team sports like basketball more stressful than individual sports like tennis, you will find the Hill more stressful than academia.

In this sort of environment, some people become jaded and cutthroat. I did not experience this in my office, but staffers in other offices told me that other people took credit for their work and received promotions as a result of it. Some people try to undermine their peers with petty put-downs or whispering wars. Occasionally, brutal treatment of staffers by members of congress surfaces in the news too. One former defense staffer told me how abusive one former senator was being towards a staffer at a committee hearing. Another staffer at the hearing grew so uncomfortable he went out the door, although the door turned out to be a closet door. He stayed in the committee room closet until after the meeting, instead of making it obvious that he had walked into a closet.

Initially idealistic staffers tend to seek out lobbying positions that are much better paying. Many will even describe what they are doing as “selling out,” even though financial realities ensures this will be a common career transition. Staffer salaries are obviously inadequate to paying for nearby housing, let alone paying for the college education of one’s children. Offering better salaries would keep more talented personnel in House offices, but as is, any low-paying job advertisement on the Hill will inundate an office with 200-400 applications. There is no need to raise salaries to attract talent; only to maintain it.

One key to advancing on the Hill, as in business (so I am told) and academia, is building relationships. It is really hard work to persuade other offices to cosponsor your bill, or persuade interest groups to endorse it, even if you think the bill obviously fits their interests and mission.

Being a staffer also provides an entry point into meetings and cocktail parties with high ranking officials and lobbyists. It is the biggest perk of a staffer position for aspiring lobbyists. On any day of the week, one can find a party with free appetizers and alcohol put on by some organizations. Some lower-paid staffers and interns could hardly eat without them, even though they might have no interest in the host, and run the other way if a lobbyist approaches them. Some of my professors had the attitude towards work from the movie Field of Dreams – “if you build it, they will come.” But one must not only do good work, but meet other people to draw their attention to your work. Unfortunately, marketing one’s self is part of the job for academia, business, or the Hill. Even think tanks sometimes put the onus on researchers to obtain funding for their projects. Cocktail parties and coffee appointments on the Hill are like conference meetings for aspiring academics. People overwhelmed by mingling at parties will be at a disadvantage on the Hill, though some introverts manage to improve over time.

As I said, people in Washington are rushed for time, and therefore prefer to assess other people quickly and superficially. They often look over shoulders to see if there is someone more important to meet. In a town organized along the two parties, people who do not toe their party line are harder to classify and inherently suspect. Being a team-player for one’s party is highly valued. The partisan pettiness of DC is as bad as it looks on the outside. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers, “Men often oppose a thing, merely because they have had no agency in planning it, or because it may have been planned by those whom they dislike.” Staffers for one member are sometimes downright rude to staffers of a member with different views, even though the staffers may have different views than their representative.

The research and writing skills acquired in graduate school are at least part of what it takes to succeed on the Hill, and political scientists might consider the Hill an alternate career path if discouraged by the job market or enticed by Washington’s big city appeal. You might not want to advertise this when you are finding an office to work for – existing staffers do not want to competition. Those who do not fit in with either party might thrive in the bureaucracy or CRS, where at least nominal nonpartisanship is expected, or choose an issue area where one does align with one of the parties, and serve as party committee staff. CRS and the bureaucracy salaries are more respectable than House staffers, though not especially lucrative for the DC metro area. Still, some might find the work more fulfilling or interesting than lobbying or partisan offices.

Finally, as a standalone experience, an APSA congressional fellowship is a needed corrective to overly abstract ideas of government learned in graduate school. By forcing political scientists to check their theoretical notions against real political experience, it leads to more accurate scholarship and teaching.

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