The Staffer Guide to the State of the Union

It's the congressional Super Bowl: Once a year, the nation tunes in to watch the House floor as members, senators, Supreme Court justices, Cabinet secretaries, dignitaries, VIPs and some lucky invitees get together for the president’s annual speech. And sometimes, if you look closely at the edge of the network camera shots, you can spot one of the many congressional staffers on the scene.

Hill Navigator has been through her share of SOTU speeches. While the late night and frantic scurrying can be exhausting, it is also one of the best nights to be a staffer on Capitol Hill. Your workplace — so to speak — is hosting the president of the United States. Even the raised print business card pales compared to that.

To make your big night even smoother — or just provide something entertaining to read during the endless security sweeps — Hill Navigator has put together a staffer survival guide for the SOTU. Enjoy.

For the Press Secretary: This is your night. Sure, your boss might be the one sitting in the seat thinking deep thoughts on domestic and foreign policy, but this is your chance to meet your member afterward, shuttle him or her from camera to camera in Statuary Hall and get that press release back to your home-state papers posthaste. A few tricks that might help:

  • Talk to your local paper ahead of time. Get their deadlines and see if you can send an embargoed quote. The president has an embargoed speech floating around, so you certainly can muster up a prewritten reaction. It helps everyone go to bed a little earlier.
  • Find out if any of the Statuary Hall cameras can pipe feed back to your local stations. Most TV stations want a local reaction to the SOTU for their 11 p.m. newscast and early morning shows. Don’t forget the extra cameras in the Russell and Cannon Rotundas (and be sure to look for Roll Call's camera — new this year!). If you have no idea what I’m referring to, talk to your caucus leadership; they will have camera maps and timelines for you.
  • Remind the boss to put the BlackBerry or iPhone away. Every year someone gets caught scrolling on their device instead of listening. As much as Heard on the Hill loves it, don’t be that person.
For the Staff Assistant: Each member gets a guest, and often it’s the staff assistant’s job to greet that person and help them to their location. Some tips for you:
  • No matter what you think of the president or his speech, this is a huge honor for your guest. Play it up. Be excited for them. Gush a little. If your boss has deemed the visitor important, than don’t let her or him think otherwise.
  • Know where you’re going. Sure, you should know how to get to the Capitol, but find out what time the guest should be seated and where. Not sure of the logistics? Call your caucus leadership or the office of your chamber's sergeant-at-arms. They’ll have any answer you need, and then you’ll be the prepared and confident staffer smart enough to have done his or her homework.
For the Policy Staffers: This is your night to kick back and take it easy. Typically, a response is not needed from you on SOTU night. Find a D.C. bar and watch the speech, or stay at home in your PJs. Just make it to the end of the speech. Remember that any reference, no matter how brief, will rile up interest groups, and they’ll likely be looking to pounce on any opportunity to bring their issue front and center. Be sure to check your email before calling it a night.

For the Chief of Staff: Offices have varying rules about how late staffers need to stay when the boss is around. Don’t be that COS who asks everyone to stay and watch the SOTU from their desks. Figure out who needs to stay and communicate that, preferably a day ahead of time. And if the edict comes down that everyone needs to be there (there are some offices …) then order in dinner. Boss’s treat.