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.
Beyond exploring what Washington has to offer, make it a priority to get out of Washington. Your bosses will likely try to get home every week so they can keep their finger on the pulse of the people. In the same fashion, staff should get out of the Beltway from time to time with people who do not know or care about how your boss voted on the motion to recommit or the number of co-sponsors of a particular bill.
Finding a mentor should be another top priority of every staffer. Seek out and develop a relationship with someone who has been around the block and can give it to you straight. As you grow professionally, remember to become a mentor. Take the time to meet with the folks looking to follow in your footsteps.
Last, remember the golden rule. Return calls to everyone who calls. When you leave the Hill, and you will, you will want and need your calls returned. Say thank you. You will find during your tenure on the Hill that many people will jump through hoops to get you what you need.
From the hardworking employees of the House and Senate who man the cafeterias, police and protect the Capitol, and move the furniture to the lobbyists, think tank staff and government officials who provide critical information for last-minute position papers, people will drop what they are doing to help you get your job done. A simple thank you goes a long way.
Midway through my Hill career, veteran GOP strategist John Hishta, reminded me of a simple axiom: “Your mail can always be delivered to occupant.” While the jobs on Capitol Hill come with a huge degree of responsibility and power, in the end it is the Member who is the focus. You are replaceable. The media, lobbyists and constituents who seek you out, really are seeking out the position you hold. Looking back, what makes the difference between a good staffer and a great person is the manner in which you conduct yourself.
Sean M. Spicer is a former assistant U.S. trade representative who spent 12 years on Capitol Hill including serving as the communications director for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, House Budget Committee and the House Republican Conference.