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The Lobbying World for the Rest of Us

It seems like nearly every time you open Roll Call, there’s a story about someone who is leaving the Hill. Gone are the government-issued BlackBerrys, the cheap suits and the metal detectors; say hello to the company-issued iPad mini, monogrammed cufflinks and personal office baristas.  

The lobbying world does look shiny from the outside, especially when populated by former Hill staffers who’ve swapped the Capitol Lounge for Capital Grille. But is that true for every staffer who leaves Capitol Hill? Hill Navigator discusses.

Q. I keep reading articles about the big pay bumps for senior Hill staff who become lobbyists. But what's the lobbying world like for the rest of us that aren't already making $100K when we leave the Hill? I'm content as a senior LA in my second Hill office, and with multiple years of experience I'm able to help lower staff like interns and staff assistants find new jobs. I know I'll leave eventually, but I'm not sure what my payout would be now compared to waiting to rise more.
A. Hill Navigator likes you already: You’re happy in your day job, mentoring younger staffers and still looking ahead to your future.  

The “lobbying world” has desks and salaries in all shapes and sizes. Nonprofits hire lobbyists — so do law firms — and some government affairs positions are the de facto lobbying arm of an organization, even if the GA team doesn’t register as official lobbyists. Compensation can vary widely; some lobbyists are paid based on how much business they bring in, a boom-or-bust model that can lead to high paychecks or high turnover.  

Hill offices also have a great deal of salary discrepancy. A press secretary two years out of college is likely to make much less than a communications director with a decade of Hill experience. If both people were to simultaneously leave Capitol Hill, they would be beginning their salary negotiations at very different points.  

The Congressional Management Foundation, a nonpartisan nonprofit that studies Congress, did research on congressional staff salaries for more than 20 years and compared the numbers to the private sector. “As a general rule, staff are paid 20 [percent to] 25 percent lower than their private sector counterparts with comparable experience and education. However, that is just the average,” said Bradford Fitch, the CMF's president and CEO. “A 50-year old Senate chief of staff can easily see a 100 percent increase in a move to the private sector, where a 23-year old staff assistant may see only a 10 percent raise.”  

But none of these stipulations answers your question directly, so let’s come up with a few ways to find out what your next salary move might be.  

1. Talk to people. Find someone who has a job you think you’d be interested in doing in the near future. Ask how they found it — and if you can establish a trusted relationship — ask about the starting salary range. People balk at blunt money talk, so it’s important to explain that you’re interested in knowing what your options are without trying to needle your colleague on how much money he is making.  

2. Evaluate your skill set. What is your next step on Capitol Hill? Might you be up for a legislative director or chief of staff spot? Is there a bill coming through committee that you’ll want to have worked on? (Think reauthorization or overhaul of any major policy; once that passes — or stalls — you’ll be valued for having worked on it.) Or perhaps there is a chance your boss becomes that long-awaited chairman, or member of leadership, and then you’d have that experience to boot. Such aforementioned opportunities are likely to increase your attractiveness as a candidate to outside entities. Evaluate how far you are from achieving any of those before deciding when to jump.  

3. Interview. The best way to learn the market price for your skills is to interview for another job. If you’re a top candidate for a job with your goal salary, then you know you’re on track. If your resume keeps finding itself languishing in an unattended email inbox, it might be time to retool your expectations.  

There are lots of compelling reasons to be a Hill staffer: public service, rewarding work, even the histrionic drama of an election cycle that some people enjoy (you know who they are). Working on Capitol Hill can also lead to more lucrative opportunities down the road. Just be sure you’re ready to take the leap. The sparkly allure of the lobbying world might glitter from afar, but up close it has the same ups and downs that accompany any other job.