If you’re a Capitol Hill staffer eyeing a K Street gig — and let’s face it, who isn’t? — you might want to avoid Rep. Phil Gingrey’s advice when it comes to salary expectations.
The Georgia Republican, like a lot of people on the Hill, seems to hold unrealistic ideas about compensation downtown.
Aides in their mid-30s “can just go to K Street and make $500,000 a year. Meanwhile I’m stuck here making $172,000,” Gingrey scoffed during a private meeting amid debate over Obamacare subsidies for Hill staff, according to a report.
In fact, it's the rare congressional aide who can decamp for a lobbying job and command half a million dollars a year in compensation. And in the current K Street economy, hiring managers get jittery at the prospect of bringing on new employees who don’t come with a book of client business and a record of getting paid to effectively persuade.
“In the 17 years I’ve been doing this, I haven’t seen it as difficult for people to make the transition to K Street as it is now,” said Ivan Adler, a headhunter at The McCormick Group. “If there was a tax bill or some major legislation going and coming on the Hill, the demand would be higher. The demand’s just not there.”
Despite Gingrey’s comments, middling staffers with 10 to 12 years of experience would be lucky to get $300,000 and are more likely to fetch $150,000.
“There is a certain amount of hyperbole of salaries leaving the Hill, but your average person coming off the Hill is not likely to strike it rich,” said Doug Pinkham, who heads the Public Affairs Council, a trade group for public affairs professionals.
Those earning in the $500,000 range include top leadership aides and staff directors on the plum committees, such as Senate Finance, Senate Banking, House Ways and Means, and House Financial Services.
No matter their job title on Capitol Hill, the desire to leave appears to be a common one. With partisan gridlock reaching new levels this week with the government shutdown, it’s no surprise that some staffers want out.
A recent report by the Congressional Management Foundation found that about two-thirds of D.C.-based congressional hands said they were likely to look for a new job within the next 12 months.
“There are a lot of 33-year-olds on Capitol Hill that would like to find those $500,000 jobs, if the congressman has any leads,” quipped Brad Fitch, president and CEO of the foundation.
Even if the salaries of an advocacy job don’t live up to the folklore on the Hill, Fitch said, a lobby position can still be a positive move. It might offer a staffer more control over their schedule, for example.
And the money does matter.
“Though compensation plays a limited role in congressional staff’s decision to stay where they are, it was the top reason cited in their decision to leave employment,” the foundation’s report concluded.
Nels Olson, who runs the Washington office of executive recruiting firm Korn/Ferry International, said he has seen a fair amount of activity from senior folks looking to leave the Hill.
“I don’t know if the most recent threat of a shutdown has anything to do with it,” he said. “These jobs are tough and they are time-consuming and they don’t pay a lot of money.”
As members of Congress such as Gingrey are locked in the partisan rancor, Olson said his clients, which are corporations or associations looking for lobbying executives, want people with bipartisan credentials. “They want individuals who have relationships on both sides of the aisle,” Olson said. “Given that Democrats have the Senate and Republicans have the House, our clients do not want individuals who are too far to the right or the left.”
Indeed, the highly charged partisan environment may have the unintended consequence of souring the K Street hiring market for some of those staffers working for Gingrey and others at either end of the political spectrum.
Still, for all its dysfunction, most corporations and advocacy organizations can’t give up on Washington, even if they'd like to.
Last week, Holland & Knight lobbyist Rich Gold was at New York University teaching a law school course.
“They were all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about the excitement of Washington,” he said of his students. “I’m reminded that the pendulum has swung from New York to Washington, and people have to come here and engage here. And I don’t think that’s ever going to end.”
But, he said, “to be honest, it’s not the happiest of times to be working in this area.”