For the Love of Power or Money?

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Politico recently had an amusing article on Hill staffers entitled u201CLittle Punk Staffers’ fuming at GOP.u201D Apparently, Republicans are entertaining themselves by poking fun at Congressional staffers. The article starts with New Gingrich’s comments:

Capitol Hill staffers have no u201Ccontact with realityu201D and spend u201Ctheir entire life being arrogant to visitors from back home.u201D

Those are some fierce words, but they equally apply to Congressmen. The article goes on to detail other injustices against Hill staffers.

…House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) dismissed Democratic staffers writing the financial regulatory reform bill as u201Clittle punk staffers.u201D

Then, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) accused House Democrats of employing u201Cstaff thugsu201D to watch over lawmakers during key House votes.

And then, the National Republican Congressional Committee produced T-shirts mocking Democratic aides who will lose their jobs in November if their bosses lose theirs.

In response to these u201Cabuses,u201D others have come to the defense of the punk staffers:

A House Republican staffer, who didn’t want to be identified taking issue with the words of the Republican leader, told POLITICO: u201CMost staffers on the Hill are younger than you think they would be, making them an easy target for such remarks, but in reality they are also smarter than you think they would be. As one who had to fight for my job here, I can say that getting a job as a u2018little punk staffer’ is a competitive process where only the very qualified succeed.u201D

Oh yes, it is a very competitive process. Any qualified individual must compete against dozens of the Congressmen’s relatives, donors’ relatives, and random friends from back home. There’s practically no job in the country which necessitates connections more than working on the Hill. Practically every job in D.C. is based on connections and little more.

But, Barney Frank’s response is the one really worth talking about. He says:

u201CThey are underpaid [and] overworked, and people are taking cheap shots at them,u201D

Are they really underpaid? I certainly don’t think so on two grounds. First, their future expected earnings are very high. And second, not everyone works for the money alone, most of these staffers are addicted to power and feeling important.

Staffers begin at less than 30K a year. This is low in most places but in D.C., it’s nothing, especially considering a one bedroom apartment outside an urban warzone goes for $1400 per month. However, down the road, these kids will do pretty well. Politico points out that nearly 2,000 Hill staffers receive six-figure salaries. But, it’s not the promise of becoming a chief of staff which pays off, it’s K Street. Once a person has been on the Hill for about five years, he can easily switch to big bucks there

When I worked just off K Street, we had a Hill veteran on staff who had been previously employed for a big-shot Senator. One day, he walked into my office and asked for help calculating something. When there is already a pile of work on your desk, these aren’t pleasant words. To my surprise, he asked me to find the average of three numbers. This guy made it through the u201Ccompetitive process where only the very qualified succeed,u201D but didn’t understand basic junior-high math.

Eventually, he was fired but not because he was a complete imbecile. It turned out that his connections weren’t as good as the firm had anticipated. At best, intelligence and talent are third and fourth considerations for any D.C. job. Hill staffers get on top by socializing and connections. A major part of their career revolves around frequenting bars and attending parties thrown by various organizations. The Hill staffers who fail to make money in the end are the ones who don’t realize that u201Cworku201D actually starts at 5 PM Friday not 9AM Monday.

The office of President and the Federal Reserve Chairmanship use the same salary propaganda. Every now and then an article comes out explaining the low the salaries for their difficult positions. Then, a u201Ccontrarianu201D articles comes out and calculates the price of the chefs, chauffeurs, etc. The true contrarian article would be about their future expected value. Sure, Obama makes about half a million now, but, he’s going to be speaking at plenty of $100K luncheons for the rest of his life. Greenspan has similarly earned a small fortune from this racket.

The second thing to remember is that Hill staffers aren’t there for the money. They have a power fetish and are not satisfied with normal jobs. They crave the limelight. Most average good-paying jobs don’t offer the feeling of importance. There’s not a lot of glamour in being a middle manager, but for most normal people, that’s fine. These jobs put food on the table and send the kids to college.

Power-hungry deviants only have two options: either rise to the top of a corporation through mind-breaking work or move to Washington D.C. Considering that D.C. requires a lot less talent and hard work, they flock to the Capitol like flies to manure. Outside Washington, few jobs for young people carry so much u201Cimportanceu201D and esteem early in a career. Even if one takes the corporate route, decades may pass until you’re part of a newsworthy project. On the other hand in D.C., it’s not uncommon for entry-level workers to meet with Congressmen occasionally, write national press releases, and hear privileged political information. For someone who craves the feeling of importance, an entry-level job at a megalithic corporation just won’t do.

For many, working with power is an intoxicating euphoria. And in a Congressional office, the staffers are practically bathing in it. They are more than happy to take lower wages in order to feed their needs for power and domination. So, are they underpaid? Absolutely not; they’re far overpaid. They receive exactly what they came to get in D.C.

Vedran Vuk [send him mail] has a bachelor degree of economics from Loyola University of New Orleans, and was a 2006 Summer Fellow at the Mises Institute. He is an analyst with Casey Research and lives and works in the D.C. area.

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