In a few weeks, 16 new Senators and 94 new Representatives will come to Washington, D.C., to join the ranks of the 112th Congress. Joining these new Members will be more than 1,000 new staffers. After more than a decade of working on Capitol Hill, there are some basic tenets that new staff should ground themselves in as they embark on their new venture.
Nothing below is particularly groundbreaking, but the majesty and power of Capitol Hill can cause many, including myself, to sometimes forget that the time spent on Capitol Hill will not last forever. Your boss may lose, retire or move on. The person you are at the end of your time on Capitol Hill should not be that different from the person who first arrived. When the power of being a staffer is gone, how will you be viewed?
There are some things that guided me through my career, some things I learned during it, and, in many cases, some things I wish I had done better.
First, put the BlackBerry down. You will be very busy, get countless e-mails and have severe constraints on your time. Sitting in a meeting or at a lunch, typing away, shows a lack of respect for the other people who have taken the time to be in the same meeting or lunch.
Second, take some time to learn about the world at large. Too often, Washington gets caught up in what Washington thinks. D.C. is the home of embassies for countless nations. There will be opportunities to attend meetings with foreign delegations and attend seminars hosted by international associations and forums. Make it a goal to attend something, regularly, that expands your understanding of the world.
Next, find a cause. Whether it’s reading to children, volunteering for an organization or joining a civic association, do something that gets you involved in something other than politics and policy.
Washington may be ground zero for politics, but not everyone in Washington and certainly not those outside the Beltway live and die by the last and next election. Having friends who are not involved in politics helps keep your life balanced.
Additionally, establish relationships across party lines. No matter how hard-core of a Republican or Democrat you are, having true friends on the other side of the aisle is healthy and productive and will serve you well. If you cannot develop a relationship with someone of the other party, or you cannot enjoy a happy hour without discussing politics, you might not have the most productive career. You can be a fierce partisan and a good person. During tough times, when your boss loses or retires, you will learn who your true friends are.
In order to be taken seriously, all staffers, whether on the policy or media side, need to be “smart” on their area of expertise. Lobbyists, think tanks, government officials and research agencies are at your disposal. Use all of them to be the smartest person in the room when it comes to your issues and the legislative process.
While time will become your most precious asset, get off the Hill. D.C. offers so many opportunities, and most are not on Capitol Hill. Getting off the Hill should be a priority.