The dirty little secret on how congressional staff thrive in the always-on world of modern politics is doing moonlight work like 80-hour weeks, including unpaid Saturdays and Sundays

A woman walking on a bar graph in front of the United States Capitol.
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  • Many Capitol Hill staffers are working double duty on their boss' campaigns.

  • Some welcome the opportunity to earn more money.

  • But others are burnt out and feel pressured to do it, sometimes without pay.

When a young man began a job as communications director for a Democratic member of the US House a couple of years back, he heeded advice from a friend who'd been there before: Don't moonlight for your boss' campaign without demanding more pay.

Some federal politicians, it turns out, like their campaign workers to work for free whenever possible.

So when his manager approached him about helping out with the 2020 election cycle, he said he "lucked out."

The communications director earned an extra $15,000 while working for the campaign. Some tasks included connecting with local reporters and coordinating messaging with partner political outfits such as EMILY's List and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Other congressional staffers aren't so fortunate. Some don't get paid at all for their campaign work. Their performance in taxpayer-funded day jobs stands to suffer, critics of the practice fear.

And there's no master list — public or otherwise — for tracking which congressional staffers also work on political campaigns, which are generally funded by private donors and special-interest groups and prioritize winning over other considerations, such as serving constituents.

All the while, this election-year tradition of toil and tumult is hurtling headlong into shifting work standards and expectations, particularly among younger congressional staffers and political operatives who've pushed for union representation and grown accustomed to pandemic-era accommodations such as working from home.

When it came to getting paid for both his congressional and campaign work, the former communications director said he believed he was "in the minority" of House staffers. Insider interviews with more than a dozen current and former staffers revealed that the practice of working on both campaigns and on Capitol Hill was widespread.

"People think, 'If I'm loyal and work really hard then they'll reward me for it.' But they won't," he said. "They care about one thing — and one thing only — and it's reelection."

A view of the US Capitol at sunset on January 5, 2022, in Washington, DC.Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Asking a lot

As the 2022 midterm-election campaigns hit their stride, staff described the highs and lows of working on campaigns to Insider.

Most of those who agreed to be interviewed for this story spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation from the management that required them to do this work.

All of the staffers interviewed shared their identities and the names of their bosses with Insider, but asked the names be withheld from this story.

"Did I feel like I was working two jobs when we were in it?" a seasoned Democratic staffer said of the demands they felt while juggling their day job, campaign duties, and shadow of a personal life. "One hundred percent."

But that's to be expected, Insider has learned, if one wants to thrive in the always-on world of modern politics.

Working 80-hour weeks, filling multiple roles, and adhering to far-from-black-and-white ethics rules are just a few of the challenges Capitol Hill staffers must overcome when the boss' campaign needs help.

Some staffers told Insider they valued the opportunity to help out on campaigns and boost their salaries by doing work in a field relevant to their day jobs. But others faced significant struggles.

One former Democratic House scheduler said she had to work most weekends on congressional duties to make up for the 20 hours a week she spent helping her boss hit up donors for money during the 2014 election cycle. The job of scheduler involves maintaining a member of Congress' official schedule and itineraries, reviewing invitations, and making reservations for travel, among other tasks.

Sometimes she joined her boss at political fundraisers, where she would carry her bag, help her identify donors and supporters whose names the Democratic lawmaker couldn't remember, and collect business cards to follow up on constituents' questions.

The scheduler didn't get a pay increase for the extra work. Instead, the source of her $35,000-a-year salary changed, with a portion coming from campaign funds instead of taxpayer dollars. That helped her boss' official congressional office save money it could then spend elsewhere, but it did nothing to help her own financial situation.

"I was happy to do it at the time and I was passionate about the job and the work, and I was young enough to have the energy to do it, but it was definitely a lot," she said. "The job was just my entire life. It was an extraordinary amount of work for so little pay."

Another former Democratic House communications director told Insider he had to spend $200 of his own money to take an Amtrak train to the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia after the chief of staff demanded he and three other staffers attend in support of their boss' reelection effort.

"There was a lot of venting on the train ride up about how this was being framed as essentially a command and we didn't think it was appropriate," the man, who also wrote his boss' debate talking points and editorial campaign materials without being paid for the work, told Insider.

In retrospect, he said, "this jumps out to me as something that I would never in a million years put up with now."

Congressional staffers outside a Senate Republican luncheon at the US Capitol building.Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

A reexamination of work 

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, workers across the United States have been rethinking their careers and what's expected of them. Workers in many sectors have demanded and often obtained better pay, increased work-from-home flexibility, and more manageable hours.

Congress isn't immune to this reckoning. The House recently passed a resolution allowing congressional staffers to unionize. Congressional staffers have used social-media accounts such as Dear White Staffers to spotlight professional burnout, inadequate pay, long hours, diversity failings, and caustic bosses.

Left largely unspoken in these debates — until now — is the campaign double shift.

But when Insider reporters started asking about it, they found major discrepancies in practice from office to office.

One Democratic aide, who requested anonymity in order to speak frankly about past campaign work, said congressional staffers, in particular, have become accustomed to being on call 24 hours a day.

In 2022, congressional staffers grapple with a never-ending avalanche of panicky Slack messages, text messages, Zoom calls, and last-minute virtual-meeting invites — on top of their various other duties. Such a congressional workplace would have been unimaginable even a decade ago, when hip-holstered BlackBerrys still ruled Capitol Hill corridors.

Yet one staffer lamented that labor rules "haven't really caught up" with the realities of a contemporary congressional workplace.

One former congressional aide, who requested anonymity because they routinely advise members and campaign staff about ethical issues, described the current state of affairs on campaign-staff pay to Insider as "somewhat murky."

In the House in particular, this person likened individual congressional offices, for the most part, to a collection of "poorly run small businesses."

"They're all sort of doing their own thing," the attorney said. "They have some sort of quality control. But in the end, it's really up to each member and their chief of staff to sort of decide what the rules are."

Capitol Hill staffers help themselves to pizza outside a caucus meeting.Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Double dipping raises ethics concerns 

The practice of working a congressional office job while also taking on campaign side gigs has bedeviled ethics watchdogs for ages.

They worry that taxpaying constituents aren't getting the most from representatives' offices when their staffers' time and attention gets split between public service and political pugilism.

Even though federal ethics rules dictate the jobs remain separate, good government experts say the rules are cumbersome, with dividing lines easily blurred — particularly when many people continue working from home because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

For example, one of the rules says a congressional staffer working in a congressional office must step outside the office to do campaign work. If a campaign-related assignment comes in, they must leave their Capitol Hill office to complete it.

Under ethics rules, calls cannot come to staffers' official work phones but must go to personal devices or phones provided by the campaign.

Some staff leave their offices on Capitol Hill in Washington DC to walk to a coffee shop. Others go to the nearby Republican or Democratic Party headquarters to work, hopeful that the commute won't be cold or rainy. One former staffer told Insider that during the 2020 election cycle, he would sit at home and have both official and campaign computers open given that everyone was working remotely to avoid COVID-19.

"Most offices are probably not in full compliance with the exact letter of law. That means each office probably operates in a gray area," the former Democratic communications staffer who worked during the 2016 cycle said.

"It's not crossing the line, but that's because the line is ridiculously drawn," said Meredith McGehee, the former executive director for the nonpartisan government ethics organization Issue One. "Where else in the world can you say, 'For the next five minutes, I'm not on my job, I'm on personal time.'"

Another gray area: salaries 

First, a little math.

During 2022, senior Capitol Hill staffers with salaries of $135,468 a year or more are not allowed, under House and Senate rules, to get paid more than $29,895 for a second job, including campaign work. The exact salary rules change from year to year.

One way staffers could get around the limits: Reduce their official pay, ever so slightly, in order to better cash in on campaign work.

But determining the extent to which congressional staffers do this is nearly impossible for the public.

The secretive House and Senate Ethics Committees may investigate such matters, but they rarely punish their own.

Specifically for the US House, there's the independent, nonpartisan Office of Congressional Ethics. But this office has no law-enforcement authority on its own, and any recommendation it makes to the House Committee on Ethics might be heeded — or ignored. The Office of Congressional Ethics also keeps its investigations private until after its leaders conclude there's reason to believe a legal or ethical violation occurred.

Jan Baran, a partner at the Holtzman Vogel law firm and former general counsel for the Republican National Committee, said abiding by the income thresholds and keeping payroll straight should be top priorities for those who venture into campaigns.

"You can't get away with stuff like this very long if you're ignoring the rules or ignorant of those rules," he said, adding that the advent of the "forever campaign," taxing as it might be, has greatly benefited official Washington.

"It's provided all kinds of work for accountants and lawyers in DC," Baran said of the staffing sea change he's witnessed since the Gerald Ford administration.

Staffers and members of the media wait outside a Senate Democrats luncheon for lawmakers to emerge.Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

The experiences of working on a campaign vary widely 

Now that the former Democratic House communications director works full time on the campaign trail in a red-leaning state, he thinks his former approach of juggling two jobs is bad politics.

Too often, he said, congressional staff helping with campaigns lean on congressional leaders' national talking points such as "Putin's price hike" to talk about gas prices in a way that he now sees doesn't always resonate in certain parts of the US.

Instead, he said, leaders should invest in full-time, on-the-ground staff to build up the party's infrastructure.

"What members should be doing is investing in the next generation of talent within their states," he said, "not flying people out."

Not everyone agrees that the practice of juggling campaigns with official duties should be reexamined. After all, congressional staffers know their boss' policy positions and the needs of their constituents.

One former congressional Democratic staffer said the senator she worked for never asked her to do campaign work but that she was "thrilled" when she moved to the House side and was invited to attend fundraisers after work. It was an opportunity to get more face time with senior staff in a still professional yet more laid-back environment that she called "a perk, not a punishment."

"I was a staff assistant, so I was happy to get a free glass of wine and spend time out of the office with senior staff," she said. "If you're someone who wants to leave the Hill, you can hobnob with leaders in advocacy. So it wasn't a requirement; it was basically an opportunity."

She would also take vacation days to go volunteer on campaigns, a practice that she said was encouraged and that she was happy to do. Besides, she said, staff lose their jobs if their bosses lose reelection.

"It's a good reminder of how your boss got there and that you should be responsive to constituents," she said.

While she didn't take on extra paid work, she knew others who did and who told her they found it beneficial. Congressional staff pay is often low, especially in the early years, she said, and staffers' financial survival sometimes entails being bankrolled by wealthy parents or, absent that, taking on a second job.

Working on campaigns was "a better part-time job than bartending in Dupont," she said, referring to a tony DC neighborhood about a mile from the White House. "It's more relevant to what you're doing."

"The fact that some offices do it well proves some offices can do it better," she added.

Others who defend the practice say critics ignore crucial context.

For instance, every congressional office has a different budget. Senators who represent larger states generally have larger budgets, more staff, and more offices back in their home state.

Congressional campaigns are also not interchangeable. Some have shoestring budgets and can't afford to pay big salaries. Others are flush with cash.

"People look at Congress like it's one thing, and it's not," said one Republican senior Senate staffer who left the Hill for a year to work for his boss' 2020 reelection campaign. "Everybody is not going to get the same experience because the needs for each office are going to be different."

In some cases it might make sense, for instance, to have a communications staffer split their duties, because a state is smaller and a race isn't competitive.

In other cases, it might make sense to hire a second staffer to remain on Capitol Hill and send another one to work on the ground.

"When you're in an election season, the needs of the members are changing and what they need out of that position changes," he said.

He acknowledged that some bosses might improperly handle the workload. Still, he said staffers could see the extra work as an opportunity to propel their careers through added exposure, learning about fundraising, and building connections they wouldn't have gotten otherwise.

For him, the main downside of taking the campaign-only route, he said, was losing that year of money toward his pension.

"That's the benefit of doing both," he said of those who have the opportunity to continue working on the Hill while contributing to the campaign. Still, he said he got a pay boost on the campaign and the pay was better when he returned to the Senate office after his boss was reelected.

Capitol Hill
The US Capitol building.Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Junior staff shoulder the heaviest load

One of the reasons for the differences in opinion on campaign work is that experiences vary widely. Some staff will take months or a year off from their Capitol Hill jobs to work on a campaign. Others will scale back congressional service hours as a way to preserve existing retirement and healthcare benefits.

But junior-level staffers face challenges. Some told Insider that they worked for offices that pressured them to volunteer after-hours without receiving any pay.

"I was aware that I was being pushed past the limit of what was reasonable, but I was 24 years old and so happy to be a communications director and didn't want to upset the apple cart," the former Democratic communications director who worked during the 2016 cycle said.

"There's no real perspective," the former Democratic House scheduler said. "For most people, it was their first job out of college and you don't have anything to compare it to. You don't know what questions to ask."

Zoe Bluffstone, a spokeswoman for the Congressional Progressive Staff Association, told Insider that its recent survey found junior-level staffers don't feel like they have a voice and said many reported needing to take out loans or work a second job to make ends meet.

"They may feel like their full-time employment could be at risk if they don't participate on the campaign side," Bluffstone said. "Sometimes it can be framed as a 'rite of passage' for staff. Or, if there is compensation offered — which isn't guaranteed — they may desperately need the additional money to supplement the low pay for congressional staff."

Until recently, some junior-level staff made in the high $20,000s. The House recently boosted office budgets and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi changed the rules to require a minimum salary of $45,000 a year. For many, even the increased salaries won't be adequate to keep them in public service for very long, particularly in an expensive city like DC.

"This campaign pressure is just one other aspect of the unwritten rules that make being a staffer a hard lifestyle," Meredith McGehee said, "and one of the reasons you can't retain experienced staff."

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