As control of the House turns over, young aides perform a familiar shuffle

A variety of new faces showed up for the first day of the "lame duck" session in Congress.
By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 1, 2011; 8:50 PM

Jessica Kershaw says the lowest point of her last days as a Capitol Hill press secretary came when she turned the key - her key - to Room 1516 in the Longworth House Office Building. "You're not going to like it," a custodian said as she opened the door.

The drapes had been pulled down. The chairs and couches where she and her fellow staffers bonded over pizza during late-night floor votes were upturned and in the hallway. Even the Ohio seal was missing.

The 25-year-old aide from Wellington, Ohio, sucked in her breath, put on her best Midwestern game face and gathered the pile of mail on the floor addressed to her boss, Rep. John Boccieri, who in November became a one-term Democrat.

"I couldn't let myself cry," Kershaw recalled. Instead she opened her laptop computer and sent out another round of resumes.

On Monday, as part of a biennial rite for Capitol Hill's winners and losers, Boccieri's Washington staff of eight will be swept out as he relinquishes his fifth-floor office (seven aides in his northeast Ohio district office will also lose their jobs). A new crew will move in to work for Rep.-elect James Renacci, a tea-party-backed businessman whose victory over Boccieri helped Republicans gain 63 House seats in November and notch one of the GOP's biggest wins in generations.

Job insecurity is a fact of life for the 10,000 or so at-will Hill workers who form the backbone of Congress. But the change this year will be especially dramatic: Republicans, as the new House majority, will control not just many more seats but also leadership jobs and two-thirds of the committee staff positions.

An estimated 2,000 jobs will shift from Democratic to Republican hands, from $40,000 schedulers to six-figure committee aides. As a result, Republicans already on the Hill are basking in a seller's market, while Democrats clamber for a dwindling number of jobs and, in a still-reeling economy, limited options in the private sector.

Lobbying and public relations firms are hiring, but slowly. Nonprofits have downsized. The White House remains in Democratic hands, but with federal spending under scrutiny, an administration job isn't a fail-safe option.

The staff of the House Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming, slated for eradication by the new GOP leadership, packed boxes before Christmas with an uncertain future. "Everything's up in the air right now," said Sarah Butler, an aide.

Kershaw networked in the Longworth cafeteria. She and her co-workers commiserated at holiday happy hours, while making sure someone staffed CubicleNo. 8 in the basement space to which outgoing congressmen were relegated during the lame-duck session. They shared job leads and support on a Google instant-messaging group they created called TeamBoccieri. "Every one of us that gets a job is positive for the next person," Kershaw said.

So far, three of Boccieri's 15 aides have found other positions, two as fundraisers off in Washington and one back in Ohio.

Luckier on the other side

The turnabout has been kinder to James Slepian, who was collecting unemployment less than a year ago after running an unsuccessful Senate reelection campaign in Oregon. Slepian, 30, went home to New York to do legal work for his father and then was hired last spring to run Renacci's campaign.

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