Civics refresher, here we come. The legislative branch is composed of two bodies, the House of Representatives and the Senate, and the agencies that support members of Congress, such as the Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Budget Office.
Review of Congress
The House, sometimes referred to as “the people’s house” has 435 voting representatives, with each state’s number of representatives based on its population. Since population numbers are based on the decennial census count, the number of representatives for a state could change every 10 years. Each rep‘s term is two years and, since you’re here because you’re interested in a job, you should know that House offices tend to have fewer employees than Senate offices.
The District of Columbia is represented by a delegate, as are the U.S. territories of American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The person representing Puerto Rico, the fifth U.S. territory, is called a resident commissioner but plays the same role as a delegate. None of these elected officials has full voting rights in the House, meaning they can only cast votes in committees and in some House floor proceedings, but still function as other members of the House in providing services to constituents.
The Senate has 100 senators—two per state no matter the population—each of whom serves for a six-year term. But those terms are staggered, every two years, a third of the senators are up for election. As for nonvoting members, no such thing here.
Working for Congress
When you look for work in Congress, you’ll find options to work either in a member’s Washington, D.C., office or in the home state office. Other places you could find jobs are in the congressional committees in D.C.; with congressional caucuses—formed by groups of members who coalesce around common goals and interests; for the offices of House and Senate party leaders; or for internal support offices such as the House or Senate Sergeant at Arms, or the Legislative Counsel.
Committee staff members are usually hired to work in policy areas that fall within the committee’s role—and prepare committee members for hearings, meetings and votes. For example, staff members on the House Veterans Affairs Committee work on issues related to veterans’ benefits, access to care and ensuring the Department of Veterans Affairs can best fulfill its responsibilities.
Congressional offices set their hiring procedures and qualifications independently from one another, although they do share some things, including resume banks. With that in mind, you should dig into the details about the offices you plan to apply to. Find info on vacancies and resume banks here for the House of Representatives and here for the Senate. In addition, House Republicans and Democrats maintain separate party-based resume banks at the GOP Resume Bank and Democrats Resume Bank.
Members of Congress and their staffs count on support from several nonpartisan legislative agencies you might consider:
- The Government Accountability Office does oversight, evaluations, investigations and audits of federal programs, to help improve government services and save taxpayer dollars. Learn more about GAO careers here.
- The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world, and Congress’ main research arm. It’s home to the Congressional Research Service, whose task it is to provide authoritative, objective and nonpartisan analysis to lawmakers and their staffs. Learn more about CRS careers here.
- Positions at both the Government Accountability Office and Library of Congress can also be found on USAJOBS, the federal government’s official employment website.
- The Congressional Budget Office does independent budget and economic analyses of federal programs and proposed legislation. Learn more about CBO careers here.
What to Know About Congressional Internships
Congressional internships offer a unique opportunity to learn about the legislative branch and the lawmaking process, and they’re an excellent way to prepare for careers in government.
- When considering an internship, understand that most are either for a Democratic or Republican member of Congress. Before applying for a position, make sure you’re comfortable working for a particular member. Learn what members’ interests and policy positions are, and whether those align with your outlook.
- A good place to start is to find your representative and apply to that office.
- You’re not limited to the district or state where you live. Consider applying to work with members of Congress whose interests align with yours.
- Think creatively about the congressional offices and members of Congress you could work for. Consider members who represent districts that include your school or alma mater or look at committees led by members of Congress from your district or state.
- Your personal network can be helpful. Consider reaching out to members’ offices and committee offices to ask about internship opportunities or request an informational interview.
- You can typically find applications on members’ official websites. Try searching the member’s name and “internship” if you can’t find it right away.
- Consider signing up for list services—more commonly referred to as listservs. Think about listservs as digital bulletin boards that have open positions for internships and jobs. Once you sign up, you will start receiving emails with directions on how to apply, including the required material and how to submit your application. They’re usually offered by private groups such as Tom Manatos or Roll Call Jobs. See if your school’s career center has additional recommendations for listservs that may be offered by alumni groups.
- The House has an Office of Diversity and is committed to building and maintaining a diverse and inclusive resource for current and prospective employees. The office was established to assist in the House’s mission to reflect the diversity of the country through policies that will help employ and retain diverse talent in congressional offices. The diversity office’s website contains resources such as links to congressional staff organizations; offers intern resume reviews and other job assistance; and holds celebrations of holidays and historical events. Check out the website for more details and help with applying for jobs with Congress: diversity.house.gov
- Information on vacancies and resume banks can be found here for the House of Representatives and here for the Senate. In addition, House Republicans and Democrats maintain separate party-based resume banks at the GOP Resume Bank and Democrats Resume Bank.
- You might respond to constituent phone calls, attend briefings and hearings on behalf of the office, draft policy memos, assist staff members with research projects, meet with constituents or give them tours, or any number of other activities.
- Each congressional office determines how much it pays for an internship.
- Ask your school if you can get academic credit and what the requirements are.
- Your responsibilities in a district or state office typically involve more constituent service activities such as assisting with casework and attending town halls with the member and staff.
- Casework can include helping a constituent expedite a passport renewal or secure benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. You might help staff members prepare a member of Congress who plans to attend a town hall, or other event, to meet with constituents and hear about issues facing the district. Afterward, you may be asked follow up on important issues.
- Your responsibilities in a member’s Washington D.C., office typically involve more legislative activities, including undertaking legislative research and attending hearings or briefings.
- Your internship with the House or Senate provides a great opportunity to learn about the institution.
- Your experience will depend on the focus of your role. For example, if you’re a legislative intern, you’ll focus more on following policy issues, attending hearings and drafting constituent response letters. If you’re a press intern, you’ll respond to media requests and help the communication team. Your tasks will depend on the specific needs of the congressional office where you land your internship.
- Here’s one perspective from a House intern: “You can walk through the breathtaking Capitol and just imagine the extraordinary decisions that extraordinary people made there. Going through those halls by yourself or while leading a tour is a learning experience.”
- Here’s the perspective from a Senate intern: “My responsibilities included three key types of work: organizing the “clips,” or newspaper clips pertaining to the senator’s activities; inputting constituent inquiries into the senator’s constituent services database; and writing memos and other types of briefs for key issue areas.”
- Be sure to read each job listing for specifics on who can apply. Most opportunities are open to undergraduate students, graduate students or recent graduates, while some may be limited to law students.
- Do your research.
- Have a basic understanding of the district and the background of the representative or senator.
- Know the geography of the district or state.
- Research the member’s website to learn about the policy issues the member cares about most, and which committees he or she sits on.
- Practice delivering your answers to interview questions, keeping them concise. Ever tried talking to yourself in the mirror? Some people highly recommend it!
- Dress professionally. Most congressional offices require business attire on days when Congress is in session and business casual on days when it is not.
- Demonstrate your enthusiasm for working with this office and highlight other relevant interests, for example, a passion for public service.
- Bring writing samples or assessments to provide upon request.
- Have a list ready of colleagues, former employers, advisors or professors who could serve as your references in case someone in an office requests contact information for people who can attest to your work ethic and experience.
Common interview questions include:
- Why did you apply for this internship?
- What are your career interests?
- Describe your experience working with others on a team.
- What experience do you have working in customer service?
- Describe how you manage your time and stress at work.
What to Know About Congressional Jobs
- Most congressional offices—personal, committee and leadership—operate as their own individual entities. This means that the same or similar jobs in each office could have different titles, roles and responsibilities.
- The entry-level position in most congressional offices is staff assistant, and an internship is an excellent way to land this job, or another full-time position. In fact, many congressional staffers got their start as interns.
- The more senior positions in congressional offices include legislative assistant, legislative director, chief of staff, press secretary and communications director.
- A committee staff is usually led by a staff director: one for the majority and one for the minority political party. Common committee positions include committee clerk, counsel and professional staff members, who typically handle two, three or even more issues for the committee.
- The work in Washington, D.C., offices tends to be more centered around policy and issue areas, and includes supporting the member of Congress with his or her committee assignments and caucus affiliations. Staff members might also handle constituent casework that comes to the D.C. office. In the D.C. office, you’ll likely assist members with their committee hearings and votes and give visitors tours of the Capitol building as well as information about other sights to see while in town.
- Work in the district office tends to be more focused on constituent service requests. Constituents often seek help with navigating around the federal government, whether to check on the status of a tax refund, figure out a social security issue or get a recommendation to a military service academy.
- Staff members in both D.C. and district office jobs sometimes meet with constituents, experts or other stakeholders who provide input on issues before Congress that impact the district or member of Congress.
- Open positions for the House and Senate are usually posted on the House and Senate jobs boards.
- The Office of Diversity is a new resource the House created to build and maintain a diverse and inclusive resource. Check out its website for additional resources on applying for jobs with Congress: diversity.house.gov
- A lot of information about intern and staff positions is spread through word of mouth, so it’s helpful to build your personal and professional networks to learn about open positions.
- Consider list services—more commonly referred to as listservs. Check to see if you can sign up for one or more of these through your school’s career center.
- Like many other government jobs, you will most likely have to complete a background check. Some offices and committees may also require you to get fingerprinted. It’s true. It’s not only criminals who get fingerprinted!
- If you’re looking for a position in an office or committee that handles a high level of national security information, you may be required to have a security clearance or get one as a condition of employment. Check position descriptions for more details.
- The House and the Senate have their own ethics committee to ensure congressional and staff members don’t have conflicts of interest or engage in unethical activities when it comes to gift-giving, campaigning, travel, or other areas.
- The House and Senate websites offer detailed FAQ sections on gift-giving, traveling, campaigning and other important ethics rules.
- The interview process is similar to that of most jobs, though you may be asked why you chose the particular office where you’re applying, especially if you’re not from the state or living in that state. We have a separate page with several tips for the interview process.