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Staffing the United States Senate

August 4, 2003
Related Topics: Featured Article, Recruitment, Staffing Management

The World’s Most Exclusive Club--as the U.S. Senate has been called--is a tough place to enter as an elected official. It’s not so easy to get a job as a staff member, either.

    The U.S. Senate Placement Office acts as a sort of gateway or screening office for senators, who don’t have nearly enough staff to manage the tremendous demand for Capitol Hill ("the Hill" to insiders) jobs on their own. "The offices get overwhelmed sometimes with job applicants and résumés because the Hill is so sought after," says Brian Bean, who’s in charge of the placement office.

    Bean and two other placement-office staff members work with all 100 senators, though senators are free to hire however they like and aren’t obligated to use the placement office when they have openings. Each senator has about 35 to 40 staff members. While senators structure their staffs as they wish, they all tend to have a chief of staff—the highest workforce-management job--as well as an administrative manager, normally the second-in-charge of workforce management. Senators also employ a press secretary or communications director, numerous legislative aides (usually headed up by a legislative director), support staff and others.

The jobs arrive
    Candidates looking for full-time, part-time and temp jobs arrive at the Senate Placement Office by way of several different sources. For one, candidates may hear about openings through the weekly Senate Employment Bulletin. The placement office edits and produces the bulletin, which lists 30-40 jobs each Tuesday; about 8 to 10 of those jobs are new for that week. (Candidates can also access the bulletin by phone, at 202-228-JOBS.)

    Some job openings from the July 22, 2003, Senate Employment Bulletin:

FOREIGN AFFAIRS LEGISLATIVE ASSISTANT: A Democratic member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee seeks a Legislative Assistant primarily to handle foreign affairs, trade and defense issues. Candidates must possess strong research and writing skills. Successful applicant will have substantial legislative and foreign policy experience.

ELEVATOR OPERATOR: Senior Republican Senator seeks Elevator Operator for a full-time position in the Capitol. Ideal candidate will have Hill experience and knowledge of the Capitol. Salary in the low 20k’s.

POLICY ADVISOR: Democratic Senator seeks senior-level staff person to handle budget and tax policy. Ideal candidate has strong verbal and written communication skills, and at least five years of Capitol Hill experience working with tax and/or budget issues.

    Not all applicants arrive at the placement office because of the Bulletin. Some simply walk into the office, situated on the ground floor of the Hart Senate Office Building, where numerous senators’ offices are located as well. Often, these walk-ins are the result of a candidate’s visit to a senator's office. Senator Kennedy’s office, for example, would rather not tell a constituent that they have no openings. Kennedy’s people would prefer to say, "We don’t have openings, but let me tell you about the placement office."

    When it comes to getting re-elected, service to constituents is sometimes even more important than a senator’s voting record. And because helping voters is so important to senators, it’s important to the placement office, which tries to treat all candidates like customers or constituents, particularly when they arrive via a senator’s office.

A good fit
    Walk-in candidates range from high-school graduates to attorneys with decades of experience. Applicants fill out an employment application on a computer in the placement office and then attach a résumé. For about four hours a day, the placement office conducts 15- to 20-minute informational interviews with these candidates, asking about their party preference, education, salary needs, areas of interest and experience. Candidates are advised on how to rework their résumés, how to market themselves and otherwise how to get a job on the Hill.

    Bean says that candidates should consider how important their political experience and party preference is to a senator. "If you have demonstrated ties to one political party, I don’t know how marketable that will be to the opposite party," Bean says. "If it’s a really moderate or centrist member of Congress, that may be less of an issue." This kind of thing varies widely by senator. One senator may say "Republicans only" when advertising a given job, while another may say "Republicans preferred."

    "You have to have cohesion among staff," Bean says. "Staff have to work together as a team and support the member’s views and agenda. If there’s incompatibility there [in someone’s views], that’s not always a good fit." For administrative jobs, a person’s political party is often less of an issue than for a legislative job.

All over the board
    In addition to handling candidates--sort of the "supply side" of the Senate employment stream--the placement office handles the "demand side," consisting of requisitions from Senate offices.

    While Senate employees all have the same federal health and retirement benefits, when it comes to staffing, Bean says, "it’s like 100 separate employers. There’s a lot of subjectivity in terms of what they require." Two senators may both be hiring for a legislative assistant to handle transportation issues, but each position will have different requirements.

    A senator’s staff member might contact the placement office and say, "I’m looking for a speechwriter who lives in my state and has at least two years’ experience writing speeches." The placement office will look in its database (a home-grown applicant-tracking system) for appropriate candidates and forward the résumés to the senator’s office.

    The placement office often advises candidates to try to use their own senators to get a job. A job candidate, for example, may be a Democrat from Alaska who really wants to work for a Democratic senator. If both Alaska senators are Republicans, and the candidate doesn’t want to work for them, all is not lost. The candidate can still go to her own senators and ask for help. They may know of a position with a Democratic senator, and would love to help out a constituent of either party by telling her about the opening. "Networking is key in any environment," Bean says, "but particularly so here, because it’s so competitive."

Busy season
    The placement office’s big rush comes around election time, and particularly right afterward. Senators retire or lose elections, which means that hundreds of employees are out of work. In addition, people who have worked on campaigns need jobs and are looking for political work. "Campaign staff flood the hill," Bean says. Turnover during the election and post-election season is tremendous, and the function of the placement office really becomes part placement, part outplacement.

    The influx is compounded when a new administration takes office. "In the presidential year of 2000, we had such an exodus of the Clinton/Gore administration descending on the Hill," Bean says. "We were overwhelmed with people from the executive branch."

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