On Friday, Mike Henry — Chief of Staff for Virginia Senator Tim Kaine — joined University of Virginia Professor Craig Volden for a virtual conversation regarding life as a professional Congressional staffer. In response to the University’s Center for Effective Lawmaking, which Volden co-founded in 2017, releasing their research on strategies for retaining the most experienced legislative staff in Congress, Henry discussed the process of hiring effective employees on Capitol Hill and provided advice for current students interested in public service.
Henry, who has been active in Virginia politics for nearly 30 years, remarked on the difficulties of running a Senate office during the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s been a fascinating time to work here [in Congress],” Henry said. “The pandemic has impacted us in major ways and put challenges in front of us that we’ve never had to deal with, at least in a very long time…It’s really been an amazing experience. There was no rule book for this. I didn’t know how it was going to end up, but I can tell you that I am very proud of everyone I work with. They’ve really figured out how to work remotely. I think there’s a little bit of — you kind of miss your colleagues and it’s kind of a lonely experience, at times — but they’ve really done a great job.”
When Volden raised the topic of recent civil unrest related to the police killing of George Floyd, Henry discussed his office’s approach to diversity.
“I think we’re all human, so in our office specifically, I think we do look out for each other,” Henry said. “It’s a very challenging time. We have an outlet to legislate and change things through legislation, and there is some therapeutic grounding for that, because we feel like we can make a difference…but we’re dealing with this in real time like everyone else is, in a time of isolation.”
In a similar vein, Volden broached the subject of how a Congressional office might best avoid assembling an all-white staff.
“I think your member [of Congress], and your Chief of Staff, and your direct reports — which would be my leadership team — we have to be held accountable to make sure we don’t fall into those traps,” Henry responded. “I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about diversity in the office…We have a lot of work to do on Capitol Hill, and it’s hard, but I am proud of our numbers. We have a very diverse staff, and that’s a goal of Senator Kaine and a goal of mine.”
Volden wondered how the experience of working in public service and government, popular among University of Virginia students and alumni, might be improved.
“That’s a tough question,” Henry replied. “Higher salaries would be great, would be helpful, but [Congress is] still not going to be able to compete financially — even if you do boost everything up a little bit. So people need to come here with patriotism, with ‘Hey, I want to be a public servant’ … The Senate is a very ancient place. We move very slowly here. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes that’s bad.”
Volden then inquired about the differences between working for a specific member, such as Kaine, and working for a Congressional committee.
“If you are into healthcare, and you’re on the Healthcare Committee staff, you can really make a difference,” Henry explained. “You get into the deep dive and it’s really exciting because you can move legislation. Committee staff is really where legislation gets drafted… I’ve never personally worked there, but I think it would be very exciting and worth doing.”
As college students face uncertainty entering the workforce in a time of economic turmoil, Henry described the process of gaining legislative expertise.
“If you’re just starting out, if you are really interested in civil rights, environment, getting an understanding of those issues while you’re in college is very helpful,” Henry suggested. “But here’s the one thing that’s really important: your writing skills are critical. So as you’re preparing to move into a legislative career, a public service career, if you have opportunities right now to improve your writing skills, you should do it. Being able to articulate your point accurately, concisely, giving [the senator] some options, on a piece of paper or an email is important.”
Students also asked Henry how they might stand out in an application to work or intern in a senator’s office. Henry recommended casting a wide net in the job search.
“Getting some experience is important,” Henry said. “That experience can be getting an internship up here [in Congress], or in the state legislature, or local government — all that helps. You need to network. Who else works on the Hill that went to UVA? There’s a very active alumni group up here that you need to tap into. This place can be very ‘clubby’ at times, but it’s not like that all the time. Have a broad approach to your search.”
As a final piece of advice, Henry urged students looking for government work to stay the course and not to quit.
“If you’re into public service, do it now,” Henry said. “We need good people from all walks of life, in every [political] party. I really hope you continue to pursue your dreams and get involved right now because the country desperately needs you.”
For more information about the Center for Effective Lawmaking, click here.