Dana Johnson, deputy chief of staff for Rep. John M. McHugh (R-N.Y.), recalled sitting down with her newest hire -- a 24-year-old from Albany, N.Y. -- and explaining the sacrifices she'd have to make to work on Capitol Hill.
"In Albany she had her own apartment, had a car and had a pretty decent lifestyle," Johnson said. "She came here, took a pay cut, has to live with several roommates and has to commute a great distance. She was a reporter in Albany. Now she's doing media relations, and part of her job has a major administrative function. It can be a very humbling experience."
It's an experience familiar to Johnson, 33, and thousands of other Capitol Hill staffers. Soon, hundreds of job seekers will flock to the Hill as members of Congress who were elected in November hire staff.
"Because the Congress will be changing, there will be more turnover," said Chris Jones, a former Hill staffer and founder of PoliTemps, a political staffing company. "Campaigns have ended, and people will come to Washington to find jobs, and organizations will be mobilizing in support of and opposition to congressional initiatives."
There will be 63 new members in the 108th Congress, and the Senate is changing hands. The turnover to Republican control means major staffing changes on Senate committees. Lobbyists and special-interest organizations will be retooling their staffs to be more effective.
There are a few things congressional job hunters should expect, whether they are "straight off the turnip truck" or have a fistful of advanced degrees, Jones said.
Special demands include being prepared "to work 12 to 14 hours and be at the whim of a member of Congress," he said. In addition, "unless you have a specific skill, such as policy in health care, in press or media relations, or you have an expertise in defense, the pay tends to be lower than the average of many jobs in professional Washington because there is an abundance of talented people that want to do these jobs."
The average salary for a Capitol Hill staffer is $42,314, according to a survey in 2000 of the House of Representatives by the Congressional Management Foundation -- a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank. On the low end, staff assistants are paid about $24,000, and on the high end, chiefs of staff are paid about $98,000.
Cameron McCree, a recent graduate of the University of Arkansas, was at the bottom of the scale when he interned on Capitol Hill in the summer of 2001. He earned $1,000 a month, but it cost him $800 a month to rent a room at George Washington University, not to mention the cost of food and sightseeing.
"I spent all the money before I got there," said McCree, who said he enjoyed his internship despite the expense.
Johnson has had to forgo holiday trips home to Iowa at times during her eight-year stint on Capitol Hill because she couldn't afford a plane ticket. For a few months she also had to decide whether to make her car payment or student loan payment. "The suffering is almost part of the experience and part of the allure," she said.
There is considerable sacrifice. Johnson has friends who, although they are in their thirties, have roommates or are subsidized by their parents. Her problem is simpler.
"I like to run an hour a day," Johnson said. "It gets a little hard when you're not getting out of the office until 11 p.m."
To some extent, those drawbacks are offset by the perks that come with working on the Hill.
"You're constantly meeting very important people, and you get invited to a lot of very distinguished activities," said Lauryl Dodson, the senior health legislative assistant for Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.). "Many of my friends have gone overseas for free," as staff for congressional delegations, she said. "Some are in Nigeria to monitor elections and make sure there is actually a democratic process."
Dodson, who graduated from Howard University School of Law two years ago, could make more money in the private sector but treasures her Hill experience.
"There's a great sense of satisfaction because what we do every day -- not to sound too corny -- but it really does affect the lives of every American," she said.
And Dodson hopes the experience will lead to a job at a corporate law firm doing legislative work -- and, perhaps, running for office herself and doing her own hiring.