How and When to Switch Political Parties
“There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America — there’s the United States of America.” Wise, congenial words from then-Sen. Barack Obama at the 2004 Democratic Convention. But has a post-partisan world come to Capitol Hill? Are we indeed a United House of Staffers? Not necessarily. Hill Navigator discusses when and how to switch political parties as a congressional staffer.
Q. Would it be better to reject an internship offer if it’s with a party you personally do not agree with even if it’s your only offer? I want to learn about a Senator’s office, but don’t want to be blackballed later on. What is the etiquette?
A. Generally D.C. is the land of “pick your party and stay with it.” Your personal beliefs and work history aside, it is understood that you align with the party of your boss.
But there are exceptions. And interning — particularly for a home-state member of Congress — is a common exception to that rule.
The etiquette is such: You can make a party switch once; once you change, you cannot leap back. There is no revolving door of party affiliations, only a one-way exit. Interning for the party you want to work for is helpful given that many members work closely with offices from their same party. But lots of members have strong bipartisan relationships, or work closely with their entire delegation. It’s very possible your internship can be the Hill experience you need to land a full time job with the member and party of your choice.
Another option to consider is interning in the House of Representatives. Most states have more House members than senators, and there may be someone of your desired party from your home state who is willing to bring you on board.
If you do swallow that poison pill and work for the opposing party, do your best to remain professional at all times. If you can, mention your concerns in your internship and see how they respond; you can often gauge an office’s tolerance for bipartisanship during the interview process. Remember that your personal beliefs do not factor into your boss’s policy decisions — especially at the intern and entry-level positions.
Once you arrive, impress your office by being professional and courteous at all times. It will pay dividends when your internship ends and your cross-party job search begins. And check out Hill Navigator’s Ultimate Capitol Hill Internship Guide eBook for broader tips about acing your internship.
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