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Are You an Expert? Ways to Tell

Does your expertise translate on Capitol Hill? (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Among all the hard-working, necktie-to-the-grindstone staffers out there, you’ll notice common themes: All are smart; all are well-connected, and all claim to be “experts.” Sure, the expertise might be in constituent mail merges or flag requests, but such mundane knowledge is valuable. So how can you tell if you’re truly an “expert” in Capitol Hill parlance? Hill Navigator discusses.

Q. I am a former Hill intern (three different offices) who has worked in the private sector since graduating college three years ago. I am looking to transition back to the Hill and I am wondering how an office might define one's "expertise" in a subject. For example, the past three years have been spent at a defense contractor, I am a certified Homeland Protection Associate (NDPC), and have a graduate certification in HS and Terrorism from a large, state school. Would this make me a viable candidate for a Legislative Assistant position?
A. That term “expert.” So tricky, so slippery, isn’t it?  

Hill Navigator recently spoke with a House chief of staff who cited a conversation with a masters candidate bemoaning his prospects for a Capitol Hill job. Despite the grad student's policy expertise, he had trouble landing a Hill job without Capitol Hill experience. At the same time, the chief was losing one of his top legislative assistants — to graduate school! It seems neither had the desired expertise of their choosing and this illustrates why “experts” are defined differently on Capitol Hill.  

Most legislative assistants have Hill experience or a strong familiarity with the legislative process. If you are tracking legislation for a foreign affairs think tank and regularly watch or attend committee hearings, you’d have a good shot at presenting yourself for a legislative assistant position, especially for an office that works closely with your organization. Offices want to hire candidates with an understanding of the way Capitol Hill works, especially people with expertise closely tied to legislation and/or the workings of the state and district.  

At the committee level, experts come in all shapes and sizes. Based on your background, begin your job search with the House Committee on Homeland Security and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Ask for an informational interview, see if your experience matches up with the “experts” they employ. If not, see if there is a committee or jurisdiction that might be looking for someone with your knowledge and background.  

But just in case you find that your know-how isn’t valued on Capitol Hill, don’t think it was all for naught. A diverse work experience is valuable, and skills that seem easily transferable now could be obsolete in a few years. If working on Capitol Hill is one of your goals, keep building up a portfolio and understanding of the legislative process. It is likely to pay off well into the future.  

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