We were inspired by Vox‘s Confession of a Member of Congress, so we decided to take this to the next level. The following is compiled from conversations with several current Congressional staffers over the weekend. We promised anonymity in exchange for their honesty.
Confessions of a Capitol Hill Staffer
9 secrets from the inside
By: A Congressional staffer on February 10, 2015
I am a Congressional staff member. I’m not going to tell you from where, or from which party. But I serve, and I am honored to serve. I serve with good people (and some less good ones), and we try to do our best.
It’s a frustrating, even disillusioning job. Constituents call us on a daily basis and yell about things they either saw while “upping” with Chris Hayes on MSNBC or listening to Rush Limbaugh discuss how Obama wants to take their retirement away. My parents want to know why I’m not making more money and my boss – the Honorable Member of Congress – constantly tells me that I’m lucky to have this job and there is a “line all the way back to the district” filled with young people who would swap seats with me.
So here are some things I wish the public, the media (and my parents) knew about the lowly paid public servants shuffling up the escalator at Capitol South each morning.
1. This is nothing like House of Cards or The West Wing
I wake up each morning in a group house, wait for my turn to use the shower, take the Circulator to the Hill, and hustle into the office only to be yelled at on the phone by fired-up constituents. I’ve done the math: these callers account for 0.6% of the entire population of our district.
This is not a glamorous lifestyle. The only thing our bosses have murdered recently is the other party’s hopes for a smooth passage of their favorite bill this Congress. Reporters don’t care what information we can offer them, they have a better source already.
We understand we’re all working for and towards something greater: one day being a big enough deal for Mike Allen to mention my birthday in Playbook.
2. I can smell out an open bar reception like a bloodhound
I’ll eat three bowls of chips at Tortilla Coast before I order my first beer. Sometimes they charge you for the second order. Sometimes they don’t. I always hope they don’t.
25-cent wing night at Capitol Lounge is my weekly Thanksgiving. Do you know how many wings you have to eat to get full? My number is between 12 – 15. Cheap beer helps too.
We don’t have money. Most of us struggle on a weekly basis to survive in this expensive city.
If someone tells me about an open bar reception – I’m there. I’ve learned about human resources management, horse racing and the challenges of moving coal on a train. They all had one thing in common: free beer within walking distance of my office and the Metro.
3. This is basically an extension of college
When our offices were in Cannon HOB we used to have hall parties. I’ve seen a keg rolled down the hallways into the office as soon as the boss was “wheels up” heading back to the district. The Congressional softball and touch football league are the next step from college intramurals. Your office is your dorm hall and your state delegation is your fraternity.
4. My mom thinks I work for the President of the United States
I answer constituent letters all day. Eight hours a day I am answering some constituent concern. The border, Obamacare, or bad credit ratings – I answer them all. My writing is top notch and it will help when I get into law school, but I am not shaping any policy.
That doesn’t stop my mother.
She tells everyone that asks about me that I work for the President. “Close Advisor.” She is always “surprised you haven’t seen him on TV yet.”
I answer mail to people with enough time to send a letter (!?) to their Member of Congress.
5. Once you figure out your way around Rayburn – it is time to go
The building is confusing. The second number is the floor level. There are escalator doors that only go up. Whoever designed this really wanted to confuse everyone.
This is a great gig. I once had the opportunity to attend the State of the Union after we had a last minute cancelation. A friend of mine works for the Vice President’s office and he took us bowling in the basement of the White House.
My friends might make more money at Deloitte right now but they haven’t seen Bono casually walking the hall outside their offices.
6. Most form letters sent to the office are filed in the “Z Drawer”
We don’t know how much money the vendors make creating these emails, postcards and form letters – but we know where they all end up: Drawer Z.
Also known as- the trash can.
We may count them. We may give an estimate of how many letters showed up. But we all get the joke. Someone is paying to create this outcry. They’re not legitimate letters. We know this. The boss knows this. We don’t play along.
7. Congressional staffers are either still on their parents’ dime or struggling to pay rent
We aren’t all trust fund kids, but most of the staff in my office are still getting money from their parents. They may pay rent, gas, or car payments. The helicopter parents are still hovering just like college. Actually, most of them are either big donors to the boss or work in the lobbying business.
Me? I live in a group house on Capitol Hill with two friends. The three of us split a $1,600 per month row house in a sketchy part of the city near H Street, NE. Thanks to the good people at Legistorm all of my friends, reporters and colleagues know how much I take home on a monthly basis.
This works both ways. The entire office looks up lobbying fees for the contract guys who come in and treat us like stepping stones on the way in to talk with the Chief of Staff.
8. Your social media commentary can get you fired in 24 hours
Hill staff are careful and scared. Twitter pages are private. Facebook profiles don’t include your last name. Instagram is completely fake. Why jeopardize a $40,000 a year job and embarrass your parents for something you wrote on Twitter? Reporters love monitoring this and making examples of the offenders.
Staffers who aren’t intentionally vague about what’s going on at work or, who are simply straight-up classless about what’s happening in the world, get called out. Any follower within gated protected accounts who has the power of the screenshot at their fingertips can and will send a stupid post out to reporters. As a measure of protection, we try very hard to make sure our feeds are full of only kittens, photos of us doing cool things in D.C., or press releases we’ve written.
And those of us who attempt about managing the boss’ Twitter account on their phones: these Congessional offices are one beer away from having a deleted Tweet front-and-center on Politwoops.
9. We don’t always agree with the boss.
A small part of us dies when we’re drafting talking points (or watching senior staff draft talking points) for a bill that is completely unlikeable, or will be unpopular in the district, or that we personally completely oppose.
We know the boss is pandering to the vocal minority. We know the boss is falling in the party line. We know the boss will trade a vote on this for a favor at home. Maybe you don’t know that, but I do.
I usually shove this out of my mind when I buy a dozen beers at the cheapest happy hour I can find. See you there.
Banner photo by AOC
Feature photo by Antwain Jackson