Working On Capitol Hill Is The World’s Best Job (Or At Least My Best Ever)

By Bret Bernhardt

More often than not, a great job seems to be defined as one that pays generously for something you love doing each and every day. On Capitol Hill, it’s not always that way. So why is it the greatest job I’ve ever had?

Bret Bernhardt, former chief of staff for senators Don Nickles and Jim DeMint.

Simply put, there are few jobs that compare to Capitol Hill for meaning, purpose, and community.

Most people come to the Hill with a passion and purpose for what they do for a living. Not that this doesn’t happen in other lines of work, but it seems to be more prevalent among those who work on the Hill.

People come to Washington with dreams, hopes and ambitions for themselves, their society, country and the world. Regardless of their ideological or political persuasions, the passions and emotions that drive the typical Hill staffer closely resemble one another.

Thus, there’s an odd phenomenon at play on Capitol Hill where everyone is wired similarly when it comes to one’s sense of purpose and calling.

Adding to one’s professional calling on the Hill is a sense of community not found in most workplaces, I find it similar to that of a university. Most staffers are fairly young, thus providing an excellent peer group to work with and socialize.

Excellent professional development opportunities abound for those that find and take advantage of them.  The Congressional Research Service (CRS) is one example, offering an array of learning opportunities.

There are also an endless number of off-Hill professional development options that cater to Hill staff that both further your career, as well as develop useful relationships and rewarding friendships.  Where I currently serve at the Conservative Partnership Institute (CPI) is but one of many of these valuable options, linked below.

“Adding to one’s professional calling on the Hill is a sense of community not found in most workplaces, I find it similar to that of a university.”

As for personal development opportunities, most staffers socialize on or around the Hill, at lunch or after hours at dinner and other gatherings where they connect with peers in other offices as well as their own. This often leads to valuable connections, perhaps a better job in another office, or even marriage.

And closer to home is a feeling of being part of a “family” in a Hill office because of its relatively small size and united mission. Not that every family is functional, there are many dysfunctional  “families” on the Hill.

But they are families nevertheless and lend themselves to a tight-knit structure that creates strong bonds and close relationships that can last a lifetime. That’s why it’s not unusual for alumni of former members to continue to gather together 10, 20, 30 years later after the member has retired.

But, the very thing that draws people to the Hill can also shorten their career there.  That’s because the intensity of purpose and mission among those who work there can lead to burnout. Typically, there is far more work than there are people, so everyone has their hands full and that can lead to burn out.

So, what do you do when you have a day like Alexander’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, a favorite children’s book.

Those I’ve observed, who not only survive but thrive on the Hill, have a well-balanced life. Meaning that, in addition to your work, you need to be balanced in three ways: Faith, Family, and Friends.

“Typically, there is far more work than there are people, so everyone has their hands full and that can lead to burn out.”

This well-balanced life outside of work will keep you sane. In anyone’s life, including those outside of a faith tradition, having a belief in something greater than yourself enables you and me to make sense of life.

Again, the Hill provides ample opportunity for nurturing your faith. As a staffer, I benefited greatly from a variety of personal ministries that focus on Capitol Hill.

These are people dedicated to the spiritual health and well-being of staff and members and do so out of a selfless, sacrificial love for them. They are there for you, too. Faith and Law, for example, explores the intersection between your faith and professional practice, also linked below.

Similarly, being loved and accepted by the closest of relationships is a rock in times of trouble.  In other words, your family.

Even for people whose family is not together or functional, they can find some redeeming qualities even in these relationships. Adding to these relationships are extended family, those who are like a brother or sister or a mentor-type relationship akin to a father or mother.

“The Hill provides ample opportunity for nurturing your faith. As a staffer, I benefited greatly from a variety of personal ministries that focus on Capitol Hill.”

And finally, friends are vital, not  just the  Facebook variety. True, genuine relationships are invaluable as you face the ups and downs of Hill life. They, too, can be found on Capitol Hill.

But it takes a willingness to give as much or even more than you receive in friendships. If you want to have friends, you have to be a friend. So give it some time and let those true friendships mature.

Working on Capitol is both trying and rewarding. It’s not meant to be a lifetime career for everyone. But it can be a most important step in your professional and personal development.

Bret Bernhardt served on the Hill as chief of staff to senators Don Nickles of Oklahoma and Jim DeMint of South Carolina. He is now a member of the board of directors of Faith & Law and the Conservative Partnership Institute.

Author: Mark Tapscott

Follower of Christ, devoted husband of Claudia, doting father and grandfather, conservative lover of liberty, journalist and First Amendment fanatic, former Hill and Reagan aide, vintage Formula Ford racer, Okie by birth/Texan by blood/proud of both, resident of Maryland.