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Success, Stability for a Few Young Hill Staffers

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Ian Shapira
Washington Post Metro Reporter
Monday, March 31, 2008; 1:00 PM

Washington Post metro reporter Ian Shapira was online Monday, March 31 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss working on Capitol Hill, and a class of jobs there that provide rare stability and good compensation for young D.C. workers.

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Read The Post's entire series on The Young and Ambitious.

The transcript follows.

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Ian Shapira: Greetings Washington Post readers/Capitol Hill hustlers! Today, we discuss the fourth piece in an ongoing series of stories I am doing for The Post on people in their 20s and early 30s. Be sure to check out www.washingtonpost.com/youngandambitious for the other stories.

This story is about how young people in Washington try to get onto Congressional committees -- they are seen as part of the elite corps of jobs available for those in their 20s trying to make their way in the public service/policy/political realm.

I am here to answer any and all questions. So fire away.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: Congress is a great place for young people, but if one is middle-aged, what are the chances of finding good employment? A person may offer experience, but I am told that there is a preference for younger people to work in Congress. Why is that?

Ian Shapira: Hello Harrisburg, Pa: If you're middle-aged and want to land a job in Congress, I don't see your age is a barrier. They are going to want to see what you bring: a specialized degree, a certain expertise in a field that can match the mission of a committee. Lawyers, for instance, try hard to get jobs on one of the Congressional judicial committees.

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Virginia: A few years ago, I worked on disability issues. Many of the congressional aides still doesn't understand the needs of disabled kids or parents with disability kids. They have their own sheltered world.

Ian Shapira: Dear Virginia: This is very interesting and points to perhaps a larger problem that these committees face: How are young people going to have intimate knowledge of certain issues if they themselves don't have direct experience with them? I don't necessarily buy the argument that a staffer needs to have a child -- or a child with a disability -- to be able to understand the needs of the special education world. I just think they need to be inquisitive and empathetic. If you felt like those qualities were missing in your interactions, then you may have some right to be irritated.

Your point makes me think a lot about my own situation. I am childless but married. How is it possible for me to write about family issues?

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New Haven, Conn.: Aaaaaargh! As someone currently seeking out a position much like the ones described in your article, I just want to thank you for inviting more competition. Seriously, you couldn't have made the jobs seem just a bit dull or unfulfilling? Not even a teeny bit? And I thought The Post and I were friends! Regardless, great article ... loved living vicariously through your subjects. I hope to be one of them when I grow up.

Ian Shapira: Dear New Haven: Doh! Good point. Let me quickly see if I can undo the damage -- what if I wrote a follow-up detailing some as of yet-unknown horrible toxic mold running wild through the Russell, Hart, and Dirksen buildings? (Not metaphorically speaking, of course.)

Kidding, kidding, kidding.

I did think about this idea while reporting on the story. It reminded me of the same sentiment so many DC parents probably had while reading a great story the other day by my colleague Dan deVise, who wrote about how DC residents were paying $13,000 so their kids could attend the best Montgomery County school. That sounds like a lot, but it's probably chump change in the private school market.

Seriously, though, staff directors told me the best way to get hired on is to really know the committees well, what their work is, what subject area interests you the most. One committee member told me that it's good just to get on the Hill, find any job, and eventually work your way there by being up to date on the most immediately available jobs and of course by networking. Another committee member told me that you should find out which Congressman is retiring, ask to get on his or personal staff, and then go from there. It's easier to get on those members' staffs because their current, more experienced staff members will all be bailing for other staffs. And so, once you're in a personal office, you can eventually find your way to a committee

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Washington: Hi Ian. I am in my late 20s, have my master's in political science and would love to work in one of the coveted committee positions on the Hill (or perhaps even just as an legislative assistant in an office). I currently work in the private sector as a junior lobbyist for a financial services company and have been using my contacts to reach out to folks on the Hill; unfortunately, my efforts have yielded no results. Do you have any suggestions on how I can improve my chances of getting a position? Thanks!

Ian Shapira: Hey Washington: Well, you're well-positioned, but I would say, perhaps, one thing going against you is your master's....in political science. Everyone on the Hill has a degree like that (well, not everyone.) I mean no disrespect. But I think if you continue facing trouble you may want to consider getting an expertise in certain fields: education, environment, etc. Look at the characters in the story. Erin Renner, a fabulously smart and sophisticated woman (who wears cool, artsy, big bulky glasses), realized early that her passion was in education. So what did she do? She didn't just get a master's in political science or public policy or government affairs or international affairs. She got a graduate degree in education. From Harvard. (That helped.) She worked in the Education Department, so she became valuable for knowing how that agency worked. And then she was an easy hire for the Senate Education committee. All by age 28.

Of course, this is what makes this so interesting for our generation. (I am 29). You have to know EARLY what your specific passion is if, in the game of Capitol Hill, you want a decent job by your late 20s.

In your situation, what is your specific expertise in the financial world? You lobby for what types of causes? I'd ask your contacts in the committees what they recommend you do. Get in touch with the committee staff director and get his or her advice.

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greener_pastures:"Getting such a job by your late 20s requires something unusual for today's young people fresh out of college: knowing what field you want to work in." Get off it. Getting such a job requires something all too typical in Washington: connections. If you think that these jobs are awarded according to merit, you've drunk too much of the Kool-Aid. Nepotism is at the heart of the problems with our government. And that means that class is, too. Look at how much it costs to earn the professional graduate degrees mentioned here. The stepping-stones to the fellowships that you mention are often internships -- most of them non-paying ones. The system sure does know how to reproduce itself....

Ian Shapira: Dear greener_pastures: You are certainly in a prickly mood today -- everything alright? I don't disagree with you that connections plays a role. One of the main characters in the story had a graduate school professor tip her off to a job in the Education Department which eventually led to a good job on the Committee.

But many of the staff directors told me that they do hire people who submit resumes without any connections.

And I do agree with you in a larger sense: the tuitions of these graduate schools are enormous and many people cannot afford going to an elite Ivy League school. Some decide to work their way up though and even if you do get a graduate degree, it often means you STILL have to start out at the bottom and work your way up

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Washington: How does expertise in a certain area weigh against Hill experience? I am a journalist and have covered pretty esoteric areas of executive branch management; would that expertise translate into a decent first Hill job, or do you have to work your way up from the bottom?

Ian Shapira: Dear Washington: I think journalists have two potential legs up in this game. The first: They could be a press officer! (I know, I can hear you grumbling over the Internet.) The other of course is that you're an expert in a certain topic. In your case, you probably know a lot of people in various executive agencies. You could probably wangle a job there, and then slide over to the committees later. By starting out on the executive branch, you become valuable to committees. That's how Jeremy Marcus, one of the characters in the story, did it.

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Washington: Of course these are great, influential jobs, but like some of the commenters to the article, I question the tone that they are really attained based on merit. Working on the Hill almost always requires having done an internship there, and being willing to start at the bottom, where pay is usually under $30,000 a year. It's a good way to weed out anyone who actually needs a serious income.

Ian Shapira: Dear Washington: Yes, I agree with you. Young people are a great and cheap way for the government to conduct business at a less expensive rate. It's a classic argument you hear at many companies in the private sector, but especially true at a government level that requires lots of manpower and expensive degrees...and belt-tightening.

Many do start out at the bottom making $30,000 but they quickly work their way up. The staffers interviewed for this story earned on average about $61,000. Yes, that's good money if you are single and childless, but many teachers with several years of experience don't make that much.

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Baltimore: My husband is very interested in working on Capitol Hill as a press secretary or in some form of public relations. He has plenty of solid media experience, and is very knowledgeable about politics, but he can't seem to make it past the initial interviews because of a lack of experience on Capitol Hill. How would you suggest he proceed?

Ian Shapira: Dear Baltimore: What kind of "solid media experience" are we talking about? Is he a journalist? Someone who gets interviewed a lot?

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tpanebia : And this is basically the biggest problem that this country faces -- our elected representatives in Congress allow a bunch of twentysomethings to run the country, while they spend their time chasing campaign dollars.

Ian Shapira: Dear tpanebia: Many Supreme Court clerks write drafts of the final opinions. Does that scare you?

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dcbird: Don't underestimate the drive, fresh thinking, idealism and intelligence of a twentysomething Hill staffer, especially when there is usually a mix of younger and older staff, balancing out the assets of a younger staffer with the experience of a veteran. Sure there are plenty on the Hill who aren't so bright, would rather play ideological games or run a popularity contest -- but you find that anywhere. By and large the staff in the more important Hill positions -- aides to leadership and senior members, and committee staff -- do a fiercely good job. And no, I don't work on the Hill...

Ian Shapira: Dear dcbird: You have a good point. I'll publish so everyone can see.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: I've got five years experience in a member's office and haven't been able to find work since I graduated law school and passed the bar last fall. This economy stinks, and I'm competing with younger whipper snappers who happened to work the member's campaign while I was studying. It's really not as easy as you made it out to be.

Ian Shapira: Dear Gaithersburg: I hear your pain. Una Lee, the girlfriend of Jeremy Marcus in the story, wondered whether it would have been better for her to have stayed on Capitol Hill, or go to law school. She's in law school now but sometimes questions what would have been more useful for her Capitol Hill ambitions.

I don't think I made getting these jobs appear to be easy. In fact, I think I made it clear that they are hard to get. Some people spend years trying to get there. Do the campaign types have a leg up trying to get on committees or on the personal staffs? I think it'd be the personal staffs. Committees are seen as less "political" and more objective, which is part of their appeal.

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Not There Yet: A couple of the comments on the article make the point that it is not just about knowing what you want to do early, but also having the privilege to make contacts and do something about that passion. Like the Hill, public and nonprofit jobs are enormously competitive. Lots of young people know what they want to do; lots of people want to be public servants or help the world. But not everyone can take an unpaid internship on the Hill, or even a staff assistant job, which unlike the pretty well paying committee jobs pay a very low wage.

So what are people without mobility in terms of contacts or in terms of money supposed to do? I didn't work on the Hill (sorry, needed a paying job) but I have worked a lot on campaigns (volunteer and paid). You meet important people -- you literally do the legwork for the person to get elected -- and then the offices hire interns who had more "face time" or donor parents. I'd like to read a little more about how average people (though still smart, and with funky glasses) make their goals happen, not just the fact that they do. Thanks.

Ian Shapira: Dear Not There Yet: Would you e-mail me?

You bring up a really interesting issue. How do average people land these jobs without the contacts? Well, what do you mean by "average" exactly? I'd say that some of the characters in my story felt that they didn't have leverage in the game when they were starting out. Some did --- some went to great schools. Others put their time in and worked their way up.

I'd be curious to find out where people -- who tried but couldn't break into the Hill -- are going to make a decent living?

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chgobluesguy: I worked on the Hill on two committees in my 20s and 30s. (And yes, I had senior people from industry ask for appointments with me. The meetings were usually for lawyers and CFO-types to tutor me in the finer points of pension policy, which I would then turn into memos for the subcommittee chairman.) There are a lot of amazingly smart people -- Democratic and Republican -- on the committee staffs; however, the work mostly involves distilling conventional wisdom, and stage-managing the political process. Don't take my word for it ... most committee staffers find their next job translating the political process for nonprofits, law firms or associations. I doubt any of the staffers mentioned in this article will become a leader in the subject matter areas they cover.

In my experience, the legislative schedule was often slow or stalled completely, there was too much talent chasing too little airtime with the chairman, and there was a lot of questioning on the part of my colleagues about whether we were being true to the ideals that led us to the Hill in the first place. These basically are organization people, dotting is, crossing ts, making sure what points of order might lie against proposed legislation, etc.

Next time an editor wants to do a story like this on the young, powerful and inspirational, I suggest she tell the reporter to look at the staff at think tanks, the White House (especially in the next administration) the Congressional Budget Office, agencies, and the Fenty administration. I think there will be a lot more inspiring stories about young people making a difference if one looks there.

Ian Shapira: Dear chgoblues guy: Would you e-mail me offline, shapirai@washpost.com -- I'd like to hear more about your thoughts on coverage, etc.

You bring up good parts of the government that I didn't include in this story.

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Washington: Hello there! I have been working for five years as an analyst for the Department of Defense and am now thinking about moving over to Congress. My only hesitation is that I was told I'd likely have to take a pay cut. What are the average salaries for folks working in their late 20s who have had a considerable amount of experience and who'd like to work on certain committees (i.e. Foreign Relations, Armed Services, etc.), and how does one go about finding ways to get into these jobs? Thank you!

Ian Shapira: Dear Washington: I mention this in the story, but many people committees make $60,000 or more. Do you have friends that work on the Hill? You can go to LegiStorm to find out how much they make -- scary right? (I can hear your fingers typing in the URL right now.)

Or, if you don't have friends on committees, you can look up salaries on legistorm by committees and see for yourself.

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Ian Shapira: Well, folks, that's all I got time for. Please e-mail me if you have ideas for stories about Generation X/Y/Millennials/Echo Boomers ... whatever you want to call it.

And please go to www.washingtonpost.com/youngandambitious.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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