King came to Capitol Hill first as a legislative staffer. He is one of 73 members who worked as staffers on Capitol Hill before being elected to Congress — a list that includes 13 senators and a host of House members who have served anywhere from one term to several.
“When I was [on the Hill], I remember the staff was sort of isolated, and I remember thinking that we’re all working away here but we really don’t see our senator very much, and we really don’t have a greater sense of what’s going on,” King said. “I said [to myself], ‘I’m not going to be that way.’”
King added that he came into his role as a legislator with managed expectations for what could be achieved as a senator, and he said he’s been focusing on the ways he can have an effect on the ongoing debate on the Hill in a meaningful way in his first few months on the job.
“[Working on the Hill] was an important part of my experience because I did come in with some knowledge of how the place works, and . . . a realistic perspective,” King said. “I didn’t come in totally naive, expecting to change the world.”
Rep. Luke Messer, R-Ind., the freshman Republican class president, also got his start on Capitol Hill as a legislative assistant in the 1990s for Rep. John J. Duncan Jr., R-Tenn.
Messer — who also worked for former Reps. Ed Bryant, R-Tenn., and Indiana Republicans David McIntosh and Dan Burton — said his time on Capitol Hill was instrumental to helping him adjust to life as a member.
Key leaders of Messer’s staff, including his chief of staff and legislative director, are people Messer met while playing softball during his summers in Washington, D.C.
And he added that he’s adopted certain leadership traits from each of the members he worked with.
“I probably borrowed a little bit from each of them,” Messer said. “Jimmy was always very focused on constituent services and understood that to be a member of Congress, you have to keep folks at home happy. So we run a Jimmy Duncan-like constituent services program.”
From Bryant, Messer said he learned to trust and empower staff by giving them a lot of responsibility, and from McIntosh, Messer learned the importance of being a substantive legislator.
“[McIntosh] was somebody that in his six years out here was active in trying to pass bills, and [my staff and I] were able . . . to pass a bill in our first 50 days,” Messer said. “So I learned from David that the best way to legislate is to start legislating.”
For staffers looking to parlay their Hill experience into becoming a member one day, King said not to stay on the Hill for longer than three or four years.
“Nobody gets elected to the Senate from Washington, D.C.,” King said.
“I also left because I found myself laughing too loudly at my boss’s jokes,” King added. “Working in the Senate is like being a lawyer with only one client. When you’re not serving them with your best advice and counsel, it’s time to move on.”
Messer used UCLA Hall of Fame basketball coach John Wooden’s famous quote “Inch by inch, life’s a cinch. Yard by yard, life is hard” to suggest that staffers looking to become members should take things one step at a time.
Terri Henderson, 6, center, whose mother is El Salvador, attends a rally with members of Congress at Union Station's Columbus Circle to announce the Restore Opportunity, Strengthen, and Improve the Economy (ROSIE) Act on July 29, 2014. The legislation provides incentives for government contractors to pay a living wage and other benefits that would help low-income workers.