Young U.S. Capitol Aides Climb the Hill to Success

By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 29, 2008

The meeting was a 30-minute tete-a-tete with John F. Kerry, former candidate for president and, at this moment, a very inquisitive chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship.

Jeremy Marcus, 26 -- who was 2 when Kerry (D-Mass.) was elected to the Senate -- entered the room, sat down and began presenting his case to make a certain federal agency's policies more effective.

"He pushed back on everything," recalled Marcus, who declined to get more specific about the recent meeting. "He will attack any hole in your logic to make sure you know what you're talking about. I felt I had done a poor job, but at the very end of the meeting, he said to me, 'You know what you're talking about. Go ahead.' It was an empowering experience . . . that I could make a fundamental change for the better."

Marcus is a legislative committee aide on Capitol Hill who has navigated Washington's talent gridlock of young professionals, unlike so many others stuck scavenging for public service jobs with decent pay. Among politically oriented people in their 20s or early 30s, Marcus holds one of the more high-pressure and coveted jobs in Washington, similar to that of a State Department special assistant or an associate attorney at a prominent nongovernmental organization, for example.

They represent a portion of their generation that faces less pressure to answer the stressful question of what's next -- a preoccupation of so many others armed with college and graduate degrees and eager for stable work that fulfills their career expectations. The worry of the elite Beltway tribe is about now: Are they too inexperienced? Will they be taken seriously?

Congressional committees, with more than 2,500 people of all ages on staff, typically prohibit aides from speaking on the record. Only a few granted interviews and some access into their workaday culture.

"When I represent the Senate at events . . . people will say, 'You seem really young. How long have you been in this position?' " said Karen Radermacher, 28, a legislative assistant on the small business committee who earned an MBA in 2003. "You're putting together a hearing, and if you make a mistake, it's not your name in the newspaper; it's your boss's."

Only in Washington, where congressional committees negotiate and finalize major legislation offered up by the Senate and House of Representatives, can "committee" connote such prestige.

Within Capitol Hill's multilayered pecking order, aides in the 40-plus committees occupy a perch distinct from lawmakers' personal offices. Young committee aides tend to earn higher salaries; they can focus on one or two issues of national significance; and they aren't always cycled into job churn if the boss loses an election.

Congressional staffs boomed in the 1960s as lawmakers competed with the expanding executive branch. More young people came to the Hill in the 1990s after the Republicans took over Congress and had budget power to expand their committee staffs, scholars said.

No comprehensive data exist on the ages of committee aides, but staff directors say that more young people have been seeking such jobs in recent years, as more seek out graduate programs and professions in public policy or service. They predict more committee openings next year, when a new president will take office and current committee aides are lured to the executive branch or to lobbying firms.

Salaries are decent, especially for the young, childless and single. Several aides interviewed for this article are paid $61,000 a year on average, or as much as $87,000. Data from LegiStorm, which tracks congressional salaries, show that 41 percent of committee aides receive at least $60,000 a year; about 15 percent of aides in personal offices earn that much.

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