One month after elections, Capitol Hill is caught up in another frenzied contest: the biennial crush for staff vacancies left by departing and defeated members.
While fresh-faced kids arrive daily to vie for an estimated 1,000 House and Senate jobs created by the national elections, staffers for lame duck members are anxiously working a sophisticated office grapevine in search of a new refuge. The election openings are the most visible of the up-to-8,000 annual vacancies here that can make for as high as an incredible 40 percent average staff turnover rate.
"There's definitely a higher turnover in an election year," says Kerry Dumbaugh, analyst at the Library of Congress and coauthor of the second revised edition of Capitol Jobs: An Insider's Guide to Finding a Job in Congress (Tilden Press).
"This is about as bad as I've ever seen it," says William Blacklow, press secretary to Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.).
Incoming 99th Congress members account for the bulk of the coveted posts opening over the next six months: Each of 45 newcomers elected in November can hire up to 18 staffers. Of seven freshmen senators, three will need new staffs of varying sizes. The others, former representatives, are expected to bring along at least part of their House staffs to the Senate side.
While counts are imprecise, applicants easily outnumber jobs available -- a fact which seems to feed their zeal. Staffers estimate up to 50 applicants a day are now being seen by the House and Senate placement offices, two obligatory stops located in the bowels of their respective institutions. From there on, applicants are on their own.
The impact of all these job-seekers is like "a horde descending," says Hill veteran David Dreyer. Armed with Congressional Directories and newspaper election results, he says, they "move around Capitol Hill almost like cattle being driven to market, trying to find out where the jobs are," papering Congress with blankets of re'sume's and cover letters in the process.
Some distribute re'sume's blindly. Some, aware that who you know is nowhere more important than on the Hill, grasp desperately at connections.
"I had someone call me, a stockbroker in New York," relates Blacklow. "He told me he knew a friend of a friend who told him to call me. I told him I was sorry. I have enough problems helping people I know."
For job-seekers, the hunt is unusually exhausting:
"The hardest thing is the walking back and forth from the House to the Senate," confides Tay Orr, a 24-year-old from Omaha who arrived last week. "But," says Orr, a former TV production assistant who aided Nebraska Republican Nancy Hoch in her unsuccessful U.S. Senate bid this fall, "you've got to follow every lead. Some staffers say, 'No, we don't have a job here,' but they might know someone who knows about a job somewhere else.
"If you can walk in the door and say 'So and so told me to stop by here,' you have a lot more credentials than if you just stop by asking about a job."
For those on the receiving end, the onslaught is a mixed blessing.
Dreyer, administrative assistant to Rep. Stephen Solarz (D-N.Y.), gets 15 to 20 re'sume's a day -- for an office with no openings. "I throw them away," he says. "When you are looking -- or if a rumor gets around and it's not true -- you virtually need a forklift to move the re'sume's around."
It's the same story everywhere. Even before Thanksgiving (the traditional start of the Capitol Hill job rush), Mike Stafford, administrative assistant to Rep. Jim Moody (D-Wis.), was complaining: "I get an average of 150 re'sume's a week." Stacks of them. Wedged under his car windshield wipers. Taped to the front door of his house. It's all par for the course in a crowded field where few stratagems are overlooked.
"You would be amazed at the tactics some people use to get in to see a senator or his staff," says Lonnie Taylor, office manager for Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who faced the onslaught when Specter's term began in 1981. "We had one person come by the office and try to befriend the receptionist so she could sit there and try to grab one of us whenever we walked by the front door. We had to go out the side door."
There are the by-now-familiar phone ruses. Explains Dreyer, "People call their way down an alphabetical list of members of Congress, saying 'Hi! I heard there's an opening in your office.' If the person hangs up, they callers know they're wrong. But if there's a hesitation by the person who had the misfortune to pick up the phone, immediately the rumor spreads like a brush fire that there is actually an opening in that office."
There is the funny side: cover letters from what one staffer calls the "I've-admired-you-since-I've-been-teething" school. And there is the not-so-funny side to the rite: Masters and PhDs applying for receptionist positions, and still applying two years later. "It is," says Dreyer, "devastating."
Despite the stiff competition, those combing the government's labyrinthian corridors for job leads have some advantages over neophytes who apply at other times of year. They know jobs exist and -- with a little research -- know where: two of the ordinarily harder pieces of information for Capitol Hill outsiders to come by.
Getting in, however, is still something of a feat. Says Martha DiSario, press secretary to outgoing Rep. Jerry Patterson (D-Calif.): "Capitol Hill is an interesting Catch-22. You can't work here unless you've had Hill experience, and you can't get experience unless you get in."