Thousands of House and Senate staffers storm across Capitol Hill each day, many with ambitions of their own for one day holding higher office. They may want to take a page out of Rep. Andy Barr’s book.
The Kentucky Republican, fresh off a 51-48 victory over Democratic fighter pilot Amy McGrath in the midterms last month, will be back for a fourth term in January. It all started with an internship in Mitch McConnell’s office.
Barr wound his way through Washington’s traditional Republican institutions, returned to his old Kentucky home, and then came back to Washington in 2012 to represent the 6th District.
He spoke with Roll Call to dole out advice to staffers who are toiling away on the Hill like he was two decades ago: Job banks are overrated, memo-writing is key, and the gravity of politics is bound to pull you back.
Q: You got a job as a legislative assistant for Jim Talent right out of college in 1996. Most LAs have spent time as staff assistants, then legislative correspondents before moving up — did you feel like it was tough to keep your head above water at first?
A: I kind of dove right in. I was hired by Jim Talent out of the Heritage Foundation, after I had experience on Capitol Hill as an intern. I had interned for Sen. Mitch McConnell in the summer of 1993 ... and then I also interned before the Newt Gingrich wave election in the summer of 1994 at the Republican National Committee. Then in the summer of 1996, I finished college and I went to work for the Heritage Foundation.
I was the perfect mix between politics and policy, and so I put my résumé into a congressional job bank. I don’t think that’s where Jim Talent found me, though.
He had been recently elevated to chair the House Small Business Committee, and there was a shuffle of his staff. And actually his legislative director moved over to be the staff director of the Small Business Committee who happens to be my chief of staff today, Mary Rosado.
He needed a new legislative assistant, and he specifically went to the Heritage Foundation to find one because he had confidence in the ideological makeup of the workforce.
Q: What policy issues were you responsible for as Talent’s legislative assistant? What would you say was your biggest accomplishment?
A: I was hired to be the budget, tax and health care LA.
If you go back to the 105th Congress [of 1997-1998], there were two major issues that were going on at that time. One was the balanced budget agreement, and the other was the Taxpayer Relief Act. As you would recall, in the late ’90s we had a budget surplus. Both of those proposals were in my issue areas.Q: When you left D.C. for law school back in Kentucky in 1998, did you know then that you would want to return to Washington as a House member?A: You know, I didn’t think it was out of the realm of possibility, but I didn’t intend on returning.
Congressman Talent, he was a lawyer — he is a lawyer — and he was a mentor to me and he encouraged me. He didn’t want to lose me, I don’t think, as a staffer, but he did encourage me to go to law school. And that was my intention all along. My intention was to go to law school, then go into private practice.
What ended up happening was politics kept coming back to me, and in some unintentional ways. When I graduated from law school I went to a regional, pretty big law firm [in Lexington, Kentucky], and I was just learning how to practice law in private practice. But because I had this background on Capitol Hill, various partners would bring me in on cases that had a nexus to administrative law or election law or politics.
Q: A big deal has been made recently about staffer — specifically intern — pay. Did you feel you were adequately paid out of college, or did you have to scrape by, live with a half dozen roommates, get a second job?A: You’re never actually paid on Capitol Hill. [Laughs.] I’m so impressed with my staff and other staff on Capitol Hill.
These are public-spirited people. They believe in public service. They’re overworked. They’re underpaid. It’s impressive how smart and energetic and motivated they are — and admittedly many of them are very young.
They come to Capitol Hill, and they work as interns or staff assistants or legislative correspondents or LAs. They don’t do it for the money. They do it because they believe in a cause.
Ultimately, it’s a great professional credential. Once you serve in these positions on Capitol Hill, the world is your oyster, and you’re very marketable professionally. So it does have its rewards down the road, for sure.
Q: Having worked among staffers as a peer and now as a boss, what separates some aides from others in terms of the quality of their work? What do you look for in a prospective staff member?
A: Work ethic ... doesn’t seem to be a real problem here. I mean, the work ethic is pretty consistent among these ambitious young people who apply for these positions.
Again, many of these young people believe in the cause, whether they’re Republicans or Democrats, and therefore they're highly motivated people. Work is fun for them. It’s part of being something bigger than themselves, so the work ethic is typically there.
So what I look for to differentiate applicants is [a certain] skill set. They have to be good writers and communicators. I think we always look for good writers. And let’s face it — some people are better writers than others, and I look for that. That’s very important in terms of writing memos, in terms of writing legislative mail in correspondence to constituents, and the ability to communicate in an organized fashion.
Also, people who are courteous. Sometimes you can’t teach this. Courtesy is so important in a congressional office.
I represent a diverse district, a politically diverse district, and that means we have constituents who are very, very pleased with our votes sometimes, and sometimes we have constituents, like every congressional office, who have some [pauses] constructive criticism or feedback for us.
In either case, what I demand of my staff and of myself is that we treat all of our constituents with courtesy and respect, even those who disagree with us.
That’s not necessarily something you can train or teach. It’s hiring people of high integrity and character.
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