The Hill Life: Young, Underpaid and Powerful

“The most powerful nation on Earth is run largely by 24-year-olds.”

Recently, The Washington Times published an article about the youth, salary and experience of Capitol Hill staffers.  For those of us who work on the Hill, the news wasn’t exactly Earth shattering.  Staffers are usually young, stay on the Hill only a few years, leaving the body with a possibly detrimental lack of expertise and institutional knowledge. 

Consider the class of 2005. Of 186 Senate staff assistants who started that year, 82 percent had left by last year, 13 percent were still in the same position and the remaining 5 percent have moved up a notch. Of Senate legislative correspondents starting the same year, 83 percent have departed and the rest moved up.

In the House, of 105 people who started as legislative assistants, four made chief of staff in six years. Seven out of 10 left, and almost all the rest got other promotions.

The article blames the notoriously low salaries on the Hill as the primary culprit for this exodus.   A chart illustrates staffer pay as running from $30,000 for a Staff Assistant to just over $76,000 for a legislative director with seven years experience.  The article then compares that to the rest of the Metro area.

Most college-educated workers in the D.C. area earn $81,000 or more, with an average salary of $93,850, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. For college grads under 30, the median salary is $42,000.

While all of us would agree that comparatively low salaries do lead many staffers to leave the Hill, I think there are two issues that are equally impactful, 1) the pyramid nature of the Hill and 2) the hectic pace.

There are so few positions at the top of the ladder (COS, LD) and so many at the bottom (LC, Staff Asst.), how can we expect people to stay without any upward mobility?  How long is one expected to remain an LA if their odds of moving up the chain are slim?  Especially when they can double their salary in the private sector.

Also, I think equally important is how the hectic pace of the Hill effects staffers’ personal lives.  Of course, one can get married and have a family and work on the Hill, but it’s a rough environment for families.  Vacations are few, hours are long and variable, and there is always an email to respond to or a fire to put out.

Bottom line, I don’t think the Hill will ever be the kind of place where people come and work forever.  The structure simply isn’t set up for it, and asking the taxpayers for more money to pay Hill salaries is simply not going to happen. 

So what do you think about the article?



  1. er says:

    My first reaction to it was that this is the article that comes out every year or so and nothing changes. I remember the last one was in 2009 or 2010 from Roll Call, I think. This system works for the people at the top and so there's no impetus to change it.

    June 13, 2012/Reply
  2. grlnextdoor says:

    Right on, Belle. Right on. With a husband, who's demanding career requires my presence at many functions on top of my own career demands, the Hill's long, uncertain hours is daunting and rough. My friends, specifically the ones with great potential, who have left the Hill, have done so mostly from burn out rather than pay.

    June 13, 2012/Reply
  3. Rachel says:

    Nice, Washington Times. Way to recycle an old story yet again! Slow news week, I guess. In general, people who gravitate towards working on the Hill are highly motivated people. Since there are not a lot of positions at the top, as Belle pointed out, it makes sense that people leave eventually and move onto better paying and more visible jobs.

    As people age, it makes sense that they want to make more money to support a possible growing family, desire to earn a graduate degree, own a home, take more than one week off in a row, etc. Personally, I viewed my time on the Hill like a graduate degree. You put in long hours, do some great work (and some unimportant work) and make very little money. But in the end, you can get a great job because of your credentials.

    June 13, 2012/Reply
  4. EK says:

    It's not just a matter of asking taxpayers for more money – I'd venture there's room in most office budgets for salaries that at least rise with the cost of living. It's hard to make that case, however, when the competition is so high for every position from SA to COS, and when even senior staff are making so much less than in the private sector.

    I know enough people who went into i-banking, big law, and other professions that expect 80-hour weeks from new hires not to complain when I have to work late, and I don't have a family to get home to. But it worries me that it's not limited to junior staff – if anything, it gets worse – and it's grating to constantly put in unpaid overtime without even the sense that you're earning your way towards a promotion, since none exists without changing offices.

    I don't blame anyone for leaving a hectic, low-paying job with insufficient opportunities for advancement to take a job with higher pay and fewer hours. I absolutely love my job, but there are days when it doesn't feel sustainable.

    In other news, does this mean people I meet with can cut out the faux-surprise when they see I'm in my twenties?

    June 13, 2012/Reply
  5. EK says:

    And I agree with the posters above that this isn't really news, but I suppose I support anything that dispels the myth that Hill staff are all wealthy, lazy ingrates.

    June 13, 2012/Reply
  6. Belle says:

    EK: Agreed. I once had a school teacher launch into a tirade in a meeting about how if “she made what I made” she'd be happy. So I asked her, what do you think I make? “75k” was her response. Cut that in half, I said. “There's no way you are paid so little, I make more than that.”

    Yes, because it's impossible that the common knowledge about gov't salaries isn't true.

    June 13, 2012/Reply
  7. Moose says:

    The fact is for 99% it is a job, NOT a career— for reasons you pointed out, such as the demanding pace, low pay, and few top positions. (I would add nepotism… We all know some dummy with a donor dad who became LD at 24.)

    I agree with Rachel that Hill experience is like a graduate degree. For me it was an intensive post-undergraduate work experience, diving into the deep end, that was absolutely invaluable to my career in the beginning.

    June 13, 2012/Reply
  8. Ella says:

    I agree with what's been said already, and would also add that there is no incentive for offices to keep good staff around. Regardless of the bad aspects of the job, there are thousands of people who would give anything to work on the Hill. There will never be a shortage of new hires, so staff turnover isn't a concern. I guess there's not much point in offices bothering to make staff happy when it's easier to burn them out and cut them loose before they demand a raise.

    June 13, 2012/Reply
  9. Dr. Jean Grey says:

    Another item worth considering–working on The Hill with a family is extremely difficult. It's not job, or the pay. I contend the city itself makes it very hard on families. Homes are still very expensive, daycare is nearly impossible and terribly pricey, and the public schools here are disastrous. So, that forces people to consider pricey private schools. Two parents making six figures can't even guarantee their children a middle class standard of living here. Who wants to stay for that?? Thus, the city is run by single people who don't have to worry about those issues and lobbyists.

    June 13, 2012/Reply
  10. IRMcK says:

    I agree with what has been said – but think about what a different place this would be if people WERE here for a career and not just a starter job? What if offices DID make an effort to keep good staff around?

    Granted, it would take a lot more than just a salary bump to make that happen, but as no one in my office has gotten a raise in three years, it would be a nice place to start.

    June 13, 2012/Reply
  11. annie says:

    Belle – The article mainly seems to only refer to SA, LD, LA's, etc. as being overworked, poor and balls of stress….with no mention of Press Secretary's and Comm. Directors. I graduated earlier this year with a Communications Degree from Ohio State and was able to secure a summer internship (that I'm doing now) with a Congressman from the state.

    How is the potential pay and upward mobility possibilities for people on the press side? I looked on Legistorm and the pay seems to be a notch better. As far as former press staffers personal experiences, I tried searching online but was able to find little info.

    P.S. – Love your blog. ­čÖé

    June 13, 2012/Reply
  12. B says:

    Oh, Annie. No one on a blog is going to do your legwork for you! You searched online and complained that Belle didn't give you enough info?

    You are currently interning on the Hill, you say? Go take your boss' press secretary out to coffee and ask him or her about career trajectory, job searching, lifestyle, etc. Then ask who else you can reach out to – people love to talk about themselves. Be polite, respectful of people's time, and follow up promptly with a thank you note. Remember that you're not too good for any job and the only one looking out for your career is you. Good luck out there.

    June 14, 2012/Reply
  13. C says:

    Hey B…you're right but there's no need to be a dick about it.

    June 15, 2012/Reply