WORKING ON CAPITOL HILL: Should I Stay Or Should I Go?

By Bret Bernhardt

No doubt this question has bounced around in the minds of nearly everyone who has worked on Capitol Hill, especially in the holidays, which is a time to reflect and take stock heading into a new year.

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

The long hours, relatively low pay, and frustrations that accompany working on the Hill all contribute to this season of evaluating whether or not to move on.

Something else that might factor into the question of whether or not to move on from the Hill is that most staffers are transplants from somewhere else.

The longing for home or familiar surroundings often beckon to us from elsewhere, especially when we remember the smell of pine needles and hot chocolate by the family fire.

Even for those that didn’t experience a Currier and Ives Christmas growing up, Washington has a way of making us think we did by comparison.

Over the years, I’ve observed this take place among my friends and colleagues as they search for “home”.  As a result, there seems to be a rule of thumb regarding longevity on Capitol Hill.

It goes like this: Most people move to Washington with the understanding it will only be for a couple of years and then it’s on to something else.

Then, after two years they either head on or stay another five years until the seven-year itch sets in. Those staying here longer than seven years will more than likely stay put on the Hill for a while.

“Most people move to Washington with the understanding it will only be for a couple of years and then it’s on to something else.”

I like to add a tongue-in-cheek caveat that this rule applies to everyone except Texans. They tend to have a fiercer pride for their home state than the rest of us. Meaning, they may decide to head back home at any point in time.

When we first come to the Hill, we are not quite sure what to expect. We hedge our bets and mentally prepare for a temporary assignment, so two years seems a manageable amount of time.

Once we’ve broken through that barrier, we become more assured about our surroundings and ourselves.

With any new job or experience, we need to give it some time before we can judge whether or not it’s for us. This takes going through at least “four seasons.” Much like the seasons of the year, all jobs have their own seasons.

Once you get through the first year, you become familiar with the workflow and your responsibilities.  For example, the legislative schedule generally repeats each year. Much of the committee work takes place early in the year, and then the flow of bills to the floor increases beginning in the spring.

If you are a staff assistant or a legislative correspondent, this affects you as well, since constituent interest increases during busier legislative periods.

Making it through your first year is important in getting a feel for the job. We are often tempted to pull the ripcord at the first sign of discontent. When we have the perspective of a full year on staff, we are better prepared to judge whether or not it’s a place for us.

The following year will be closer to normal. You’re feeling more self-assured and now have a year of experience under your belt and know better what to expect.

“When we have the perspective of a full year on staff, we are better prepared to judge whether or not it’s a place for us.”

You will also receive validations along the way to help make your decision. This comes from being attuned to the Lord’s will for you.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” — Jeremiah 29:11

If we believe this and are seeking the Lord’s plan for our life, He will reveal it.

This came to light recently when I asked my daughter if there was a moment during her stint as a staff assistant and deputy press secretary on the Hill that she felt the Lord’s affirmation about staying in or leaving her job.

She said yes, there was a specific time she felt like walking away from her job for various reasons. It was at that point she felt the Lord said “stick this out.”

It was during one of the busiest times in that office and probably the senator’s career. She was working until midnight some nights, going to late-night interviews and early morning broadcasts.

She was so tired and so beat but truly felt the Lord was in that office, and knows He was! And during it all, He was with her and wanted the experience to strengthen her and increase her faith.

The same is true for you.  Along the way, as you are open to the Father’s will in your life, He will provide direction. It may come in small or obscure ways like the “gentle whisper” described in 1 Kings 19:12, a feeling that says “stick it out,” or even a dramatic event.

But as you stay attuned to His voice, He will certainly guide you in whether to stay or to go.

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. Go here: