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A Day in the Life of a Political Aide

“Politics is all in the staff work,” said one Senate aide. Politicians are the visible faces of political life, the personalities who spark public debate, but the overwhelming bulk of the processes by which political decisions are made are handled by political staffers. Staffers prepare the reports, conduct the research, draft the legislation, and prepare the negotiation briefs that allow political life to go on. The pay is merely average and the hours are long, but many staffers report great satisfaction with work that allows them a central role in important public decision making. Aides must be aware both of the political developments in their field and of the needs of the home district, and they must be aware of likely public reaction to the various positions in a political debate. An effective aide is a valued advisor and resource, and elected officials frequently develop a core senior staff which they take with them from office to office throughout their careers. There is significant turnover among more junior staffers, however, as they maneuver to work for candidates or officeholders whose careers are on the rise. Attachment to a particular politician, who often serves as a mentor, is perhaps the most striking aspect of a career as a political aide. The development of long-term commitment and loyalty to a single party or candidate can be extremely rewarding, but an aide’s ambitions must be aligned with those of the boss. Moreover, political egos are such that staffers who seek the limelight frequently find themselves seeking alternative employment. In addition, the success of a staffer’s career is tied to that of the politician; if the politician changes jobs, so must the staffer, and if the politician loses a reelection bid the staffers are out of jobs. Despite these uncertainties, however, the life of a political aide can be extremely satisfying, and the dangers of getting turned out of office are offset by the wide range of experiences afforded a political aide.

Paying Your Dues

A college degree is a necessity for staff work at any level-local, state, or federal-and many staffers have graduate and/or professional experience in their fields of specialization. Young labor attorneys will move into labor relations positions, say, while agricultural consultants may find jobs covering agricultural affairs, while journalism is a useful background for press aide positions. Competition for entry-level jobs can be intense; aspiring aides who have worked on major campaigns or interned in government offices have much stronger chances of being hired. Frequently, though not always, legislators hire aides from their home districts or states, as a means of maintaining contact between their constituents and Washington or the state capitol.

Present and Future

Politicians have always required aides and advisors, though the highly developed staffs of modern American politics are a relatively recent phenomenon. In 1945, Congress employed 4,000 staffers, while today it employs 20,000 full-time staff members. Staffs of state governments, though smaller, have seen similar expansion. Numerous factors have contributed to this dramatic increase, but the most important has been the increasing role of federal and local government in American life over the last 60 years. As governments administer more laws, the complexity of the issues facing legislators increases, and they require increasingly large staffs to be able to make informed decisions. Despite current efforts to trim back the size of American government, the job of legislators in modern society will likely remain extremely complex, and their need for able aides isn’t going to disappear.

Quality of Life

PRESENT AND FUTURE

The process begins with the accumulation of legal and technical knowledge, learning the legislative lay of the land in her assigned fields. Equally important, the aide is developing contacts with her counterparts in other legislative and committee offices, with journalists who cover her field, and with constituents affected by the issues she covers.

FIVE YEARS OUT

The average congressional staffer leaves after four years. Those who remain have become valued advisors, with considerable expertise and networks of contacts in their areas of responsibility. Some have become legislative directors, supervising legislative assistants and working with their politicians to set priorities for the legislative resources of the office.

TEN YEARS OUT

By now, the political aide is likely one of the most experienced employees in the office. As a legislative directlŠ€or chief of staff, she may have considerable influence over the priorities and time commitments of the politician she works for, and throughout the government and legislative offices, she has a wide range of contacts with whom her own office participates in decisions and negotiations. Many aides at this level have considerable policy influence and authority to negotiate directly on behalf of the officeholder.