The Skills You Need

Just stop by Tortilla Coast or The Pour House in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol some night after work and eavesdrop on Congressional staffers commiserating about their jobs.

“You’ll never guess what I had to do today,” is a familiar refrain as they down Miller Lites, guacamole and burgers.

That’s because Congressional staffers boast some of the most unique job skills around. An outline of these skills isn’t etched into the job description. But everyone will attest that if you work in Congress, you had better either have or be on the road to acquiring some unique job skills.

Thousands of ambitious young people descend on Capitol Hill each year seeking work. They invest in Brooks Brothers suits and buy the right heels to look the part. Many are fresh out of college, seeking an internship or a staff assistant position. Many harbor goals of becoming a policy expert, eventually crafting legislation on health care, trade or taxation. Others aspire to become communications directors, chiefs of staff, campaign managers or even enter politics themselves.

It seems glamorous to outsiders.

But often it’s anything but.

If you’re going to work on Capitol Hill, here are some of the skills you’ll need:

One female aide said that you have to learn how to walk really fast through the Senate tunnels in high heels while taking notes from the senator.

Another Senate aide said it helps to get used to being yelled at by the senator in public places. “Especially on trains and the subway,” she added.

A knowledge of geography is essential on Capitol Hill. It’s a gigantic, sprawling campus with multiple office buildings, coils of subterranean corridors, and dozens of anterooms, basements and sub-basements.

It’s typical that lawmakers send interns or junior staff to drop off documents, letters or legislation in the House Democratic and Republican Cloakrooms. The cloakrooms serve as a parliamentary checkpoint for official business on the House floor.

One House office recently dispatched an intern on a mission to drop off some documents in the cloakroom. The office was surprised to get a call a few hours later – from the Coat Check in the Capitol Visitor’s Center. It seems the legislative documents in question had been dropped off there and no one could quite understand why.

It’s unknown if any coats belonging to tourists (or, for that matter, cloaks) wound up in the House cloakrooms instead.

Several Congressional offices reported that they needed to become iPhone experts. That’s because the lawmaker (or their kids) would inexplicably lock the phone in ways that would confound even Steve Jobs. Various aides noted that lawmakers seem to be particularly inept at using handheld electronic devices of any kind.

Many aides talked about how live television interviews created the opportunity to master unique skills. There were various versions of having to keep a lint roller nearby to brush off the lawmaker’s suit before an interview on FOX or CNN. Some talked about helping color coordinate ties or even straightening ties. One staffer spoke of learning to tie a tie in reverse on her boss. She said that the Congressman was not good at tying his own tie. So she started tying it for him. She noted that she became pretty good at tying ties – on someone else – yet she couldn’t tie a tie on herself if she tried.

Some aides talked about how they became impromptu makeup artists – applying base and powder to their bosses before they would go on the air. One aide spoke of how she had just done up her boss to go on the air – when his wife unexpectedly requested a touchup of her own makeup from the shocked staffer.

The next job task doesn’t quite fall into the category of makeup or ties. But it does involve presentation. One staffer said they weren’t asked to do this, but always checked to make sure that the boss’s fly was zipped when he left the office.

It always was.

Elevator holding is a special skill, too. A variety of aides discussed how their job was to go down the hall and get an elevator when their lawmaker was about to emerge from their office to walk to the floor or to a hearing. Some described the task as easy as just running ahead to get the elevator. Others described an intricate operation that practically involved Swiss Timing so the harried lawmaker wouldn’t have to wait at all.

A plethora of offices relayed stories about dealing with the public and constituents who would call. Patience is the key. Anyone who’s worked for any period of time on Capitol Hill knows that Congressional offices get a lot of zany calls. Lots of conspiracy theories. Lots of hate. Lots of dumb questions. Various aides recalled stories of constituents calling the office and asking aides to pray with them or requesting help finding lost pets.

“Make sure you’re a good listener and have a good answer prepared about health care reform, Eric Holder and Obama’s birth certificate,” was the sage advice of one aide.

This same aide also counseled to get to know the Capitol Police who work the entrances near your office well.

“You never know when you’re going to need them,” the aide said.

Some offices ask aides to double as drivers. They take the lawmaker to and from the airport and drop them off at speeches or engagements in downtown Washington.

“GPS is a good friend,” said one aide. “And tip the parking attendants.”

A senior aide said he acquired the skills better suited for that of a camp counselor.  He noted that over the years he found himself having to console the boss from time to time after things went wrong. But he also used those skills with fellow staffers when they became distraught as well. He said it was important to be a sounding board for people because it helped the esprit de corps of the office.

Someone else suggested brushing up on baking skills to bolster morale. The aide said that everyone always seemed a little happier when there were homemade brownies and chocolate chip cookies around.

Another aide said a stash of “Jim Beam” did the trick as well.

“Get to know the family,” said one aide when asked about unique Congressional job skills. “Understand the expectations of his wife and things will be fine.”

Another offered completely contrary advice when dealing with the family.

“I just ignore them when they call,” the aide said.

So you want to work in Congress? Make sure you study election results, attend Congressional Research Service seminars on parliamentary procedure and learn the ins and outs of your Congressional district.

And then there are all of the other skills. The skills they don’t tell you about.

“I had to walk his dog,” lamented one aide. “And had to clean up after it, too.”