Apart from the burbling sounds of an aquarium screen saver on Jeff Urbanchuk's computer, there is hardly a sound in the sunny fourth-floor suite at the Rayburn House Office Building.
Fewer calls have been coming in since his boss, Rep. James C. Greenwood (R-Pa.) announced he was leaving to head up a biotechnology industry group. And after Greenwood skipped a deadline last month to declare his candidacy, the usual piling up of faxes and the near-constant ring of the phone have been replaced by a quieter kind of buzz -- the hum of the congressional job search.
"It might be slow on the meeting side, but the Xerox machine is busy, the staff is sending out e-mails like crazy, and lots of calls are going out, even if they're not coming in," said Urbanchuk, 27, a staff assistant to Greenwood who has sent five resumes to lobbying and political consulting firms and is considering other options. "You get a lot of sympathy. It's kind of like a mourning process."
This year, the job search in what is Washington's signature industry seems even more competitive, with election year networking and more choices as candidates weigh private-sector positions vs. campaign work, as well as other jobs on the Hill. Republicans are hedging their bets, entertaining sure-fire opportunities -- just in case. Democrats with job offers are wondering whether to hold off for another two months.
At least eight senators and 37 members of the House have announced their retirements, lost their primary races or quit to run for something else. Members of their staffs are now in play, calling or e-mailing friends and colleagues, poring over classified ads or taking calls from headhunters.
"Right now, you're seeing a number of senior folks from the Hill, regardless of party, and from the administration, looking around," said Nels Olson, who runs the Washington office of Korn-Ferry International, an executive search firm. "It's that natural time where they're thinking about what's next. Right now, our phone is ringing much more than six months ago."
Staffers who have worked on the Hill for nearly 20 years can count the months and days they need to meet pension requirements. Parents are gambling on presidential campaign work and hoping the kids and mortgages won't suffer. Young singles are helping get out the vote in the swing states, partly out of party loyalty and partly out of self-interest.
Chiefs of staff are doing something they rarely do: forwarding job listings to their own staffs. There's the one from the Republican Communication Association that announces that Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) needs a writer to handle speeches, talking points and a weekly column (Texas native strongly preferred).
And the 33-page list from S. Bradley Traverse of U.S. Strategies Corp., which shows that Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) wants a Washington director to oversee seven people (New York political landscape knowledge preferred but not required).
The jobs are a window into the strange world of Capitol Hill, where fun is sometimes the ability to walk down Constitution Avenue, have a scintillating conversation about the omnibus spending bill and then tell someone about it.
Industry associations, advertising groups and the Federal Reserve Bank are all looking to hire press secretaries. Congressional committees need webmasters, staff assistants and interns. Excellent writing skills seem to be in short supply or high demand.
Some offices hide behind not so mysterious descriptions ("active moderate Northern California Democrat"). Others try to woo unsuspecting novices: "Wanted: fun, friendly, hardworking Interns to work in awesome Arkansas Congressional Office!"
Because the No. 1 way to get a job in Washington is through connections, experts advise volunteering for face time. And while the flow of resumes reaches a peak when newly elected members arrive in November, job applicants aren't encouraged to wait.
"November of an election year is one of the worst times to try and find a job on Capitol Hill," said Bo Harmon, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "There are so many people, either from the staff of a member who's retiring or people who have been out on campaigns and are coming back to D.C. It's difficult to stand out among the stack of applicants."
How and where Hill staffers search for work is as important as when to begin.
The problems and issues they face range from switching to month-to-month leases, boiling down more than a dozen years of Hill experience and figuring out the best move -- not easy in a town full of Type A workaholics, all equally addicted to the game. For the few who leave Washington, the trick is figuring out how to make a deep understanding of Senate procedure relevant in, say, South Carolina.
"The problem with a million options is you have to decide which way you want to go," said Jeff Mendelsohn, whose boss, Rep. Ciro D. Rodriguez (D-Tex.), was redistricted out of a job. With 12 years of Hill experience, Mendelsohn could easily land another Hill job. His law degree also makes the private sector attractive.
"Or I could say I'm waiting to see what happens in November. But if Kerry wins, that doesn't guarantee me a job," said Mendelsohn, who has a wife and three children.
No one works on the Hill for the money. But those who excel at it find it difficult to leave. Being a Hill chief of staff is like sipping water from a fire hose.
"The issues change, the politics change, the dynamics change," Mendelsohn said. "I have to worry about what's going on on the legislative side, what's going on politically back home. You want to make sure the press releases are going out, the service operations are going well. You're always juggling a bunch of balls."
Longtime chiefs of staff are like captains who tend to go down with the ship, often while helping direct dozens of less-experienced colleagues to new jobs.
"I don't know if it's denial or loyalty or both. They put out resumes, but it's hard to think of life after their member leaves," said Rick Kessler, chief of staff to Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) and a 13-year Hill veteran who has not updated his resume since 1998 and is not looking for work. "For chiefs of staff, it's unseemly if you're not the last to go."
The best way to get started is circulating your name and resume via e-mail, said Christopher Porter, a former Hill worker and author of "How to Get a Job in Congress (Without Winning an Election)." Porter also recommends keeping track of job inquiries and callbacks in a spreadsheet. And being persistent.
Always ask people for additional contacts, for example, because everyone in Washington likes to boast about how many people they know, Porter said.
A week-long orientation program for new members of Congress is a prime opportunity for job seekers with less Hill experience (although this means waiting until November). There, job candidates can meet incoming members when they get their new computers, more than 50 pounds of reading material and a big box that soon will fill up with thousands of resumes.
Dave Devendorf, chief of staff for Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), has cautioned staff members that being able to work for whoever replaces Campbell, who is retiring, is not a given, even if the new senator is from the same party.
"These are largely political patronage jobs -- it's just the harsh reality. People work on campaigns and find people they really believe in and give their blood, sweat and tears. And when it's over, people land jobs," said Devendorf, who has worked for Campbell for two decades. "At the end of the day, some folks want experienced people to help them get started. And other folks don't necessarily want people who say, 'In my other office, we always did this.' " Like other members of Congress, Campbell offered his staff personalized letters of recommendation and a well-placed phone call if necessary. "I'm sure he'll assist me with what I want to be when I grow up," said Devendorf, a 40-year-old father of four.
Greenwood, the Pennsylvania Republican, has done the same for 18 staff members, including nine in Washington.
"If Senator so-and-so is looking for someone, and I have a staff member looking at an opportunity to go to the Homeland Security Committee, I'll put in a call to Congressman [Christopher] Cox," Greenwood said.
In the meantime, Urbanchuk, Greenwood's staff assistant, continues to study the classified ads in Roll Call and the Hill and visit the recruiting center at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management, where he is taking night classes.
When Rep. Rodney Alexander (La.) switched parties from Democrat to Republican last month, his staff resigned en masse. Urbanchuk heard about the resignations from an Alexander intern before they made news and knew this meant more job opportunities. "There are friends in offices who know things," he said.