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Clout Calculations: When's a Good Time to Leave Leadership?

Just how compelling must a job offer be for a staffer such as Michael Steel, right, to decide to leave Capitol Hill? (CQ Roll Call File Photo).

If you work for the highest-ranking member of the House, just how good must a job offer be to jump ship?  

Such are the questions swirling around Michael Steel, a spokesman for Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, who is leaving the speaker’s office and his $150,000 salary there (according to Legistorm) to work as an adviser to Jeb Bush’s Right to Rise Policy Solutions PAC. The former Florida governor is expected to officially announce his candidacy for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination this summer. Leaving Capitol Hill for the campaign trail can be a wise career move, particularly for someone as well-positioned as Bush in the GOP nomination contest. Campaign flacks, including Robert Gibbs and Josh Earnest, have found themselves behind the West Wing podium as White House press secretaries.  

There is also speculation Boehner is nearing retirement, an idea that gains steam with the periodic challenges within his own party to his leadership. Similar questions surfaced after former Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck took a high-profile round trip to and from Capitol Hill in 2014 for a stint in the private sector before being lured back by House Ways and Means Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., six months later.  

Boehner hasn't given any indication he has plans to step aside. But as with any uncertainty on Capitol Hill, leaving before rumors start floating is a wise move on the part of ladder-climbing aides who want to trade their cache for different political opportunities or for K Street.  

But does a staffer’s clout change when the boss’s future is uncertain?  

“Simple answer is 'yes,'” said Doug Thornell, managing director at SKDKnickerbocker and a former senior adviser to Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. “If you go from working in leadership to a rank-and-file member, you are no longer the center of attention or part of key party decisions. To some staffers, this is incredibly important as they are looking at life after the Hill. Knowing the kind of guy Steel is and his sense of loyalty, I doubt it played any role. Jobs like the one he is taking come around very rarely and you have to jump at opportunities like this.”  

And sometimes a staffer’s clout can increase with a move. "Whenever a high-level leadership staffer departs, there is definitely a drop-off in the attention level because that person has left a big center of power and influence,” said Ron Bonjean, communications director to then-Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and now a partner at Rokk Solutions. “However, the respect level usually remains for those that are known to have done a great job and treated people with respect while they served.”  

But the true test of changing clout may come after the boss actually departs, rather than stepping aside or waiting in the wings. Just ask Rodell Mollineau, former staffer to then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and a partner along with Bonjean at Rokk Solutions. Reid has announced his plans to retire at the end of 2016. “I'll let you know in 18 months,” he said.  

Mollineau left Capitol Hill in 2011 but believes that understanding the way Congress works will be valuable in any position. “Those relationships you have are important, especially those relationships in leadership,” he said. “But the ability to be a good strategist and know how power works goes a long way toward keeping career longevity.”  

Related: Michael Steel Trades Boehnerland for Bushworld The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.