Bush Vets: Can You Spare a Job?

Three months ago, Chris Brown was a highflying political player, working for the White House at age 27 with a seemingly limitless career ahead of him.

Now, he says, “I’m unemployed, doing an unpaid, full-time internship with a congressman.”

And it could get even worse: He may soon have to apply for unemployment benefits.

Brown is hardly alone.

The economic implosion that was largely an intellectual policy challenge inside the White House has abruptly become a harsh reality for Bush administration officials cast out of the bubble and back into the real world. To survive, they’re taking pay cuts, stepping down to state government work and even renting out their own homes to the ascendant Democrats.

It’s a feast-or-famine cycle that both parties endure during a change of power at the White House. Plenty of Clinton Democrats had to get creative about their careers after Republican George W. Bush won in 2000. But Democrats still had a majority in the Senate back then, offering a small government refuge that also ensured some lobbying firms would still want them on their teams.

The former Bush officials are facing a triple threat: the worst economy in decades, minority status on Capitol Hill and a job market teeming with other Republicans who have lost congressional jobs or are being laid off on K Street.

About a week after President Barack Obama’s Inauguration put Brown out of a job, he realized he wouldn’t be able to land a congressional gig from his sofa. Friends and former colleagues had recommended he come to the Hill. So he e-mailed around and offered to sort mail and answer phones in exchange for a desk. Arkansas Republican Rep. John Boozman put him to work.

Brown has used the past three months to hustle face time with about 30 congressional aides and has formally interviewed for two paying positions.

After three years at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Interior Department and the White House, he’s selling his ability to help lawmakers navigate the executive branch bureaucracy. And he’s willing to take a pay cut and an entry-level job to make the transition.

Brandon Beshears was more selective in his job search. Most recently, the 33-year-old worked for the Department of Agriculture, and he wanted to continue in that field.

But competition is fierce. Beshears interviewed for positions where he went up against friends from the department.

Like Brown, Beshears signed up as an unpaid intern. He went to work for Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-Mo.) and started collecting unemployment.

“It’s good to have some structure, a purpose to your day, instead of eating a sandwich, playing some PlayStation and sending a couple résumés out,” said Beshears, who’s also worked for the National Rifle Association and the Republican National Committee.

Beshears’ two-month savings cushion recently ran out, and he was forced to leave his job-hunting perch on the Hill to take a temporary gig with a law firm.

“I kind of hit a wall. My luxury free time is coming to an end, my bankers were telling me,” he said. “It’s definitely rougher than I was hoping. I planned for the worst, and it was worse than I thought.”

But he landed a job on the Senate Agriculture Committee last week and started work Monday.

A 12-year Hill veteran, Matt Sagely, Boozman’s chief of staff, said he has never seen so many qualified people out of work. When job openings are posted, he’ll often get e-mails from a half-dozen applicants asking him to put in a good word.

With so many talented people asking for recommendations, Sagely has started a process similar to the one used to nominate a federal judge or U.S. attorney. He forwards a list of qualified people to the respective office and tells its staffers that he’d be happy to talk further about anybody they might be interested in.

There are just too many talented people to play favorites, Sagely said.

The upside, of course, is that it’s a buyer’s market. Offices are able to attract high-caliber talent that might slip away in more robust times.

For example, some insiders pointed to Texas Republican Rep. John Culberson’s ability to snag Megan Mitchell, former Vice President Dick Cheney’s press secretary, as his communications director.

Mitchell said she had several opportunities after leaving the White House and chose to work for Culberson because, like her, he’s a limited-government, Jeffersonian Republican — and his staff is great to work with.

“I’ve worked with people who have a lot of ego, and there’s none of that here,” she said.

Mitchell’s boss, Tony Essalih, said he received about 100 résumés within a week of posting the job. He found Mitchell after a friend in Cheney’s office mentioned the opening to her.

When a staff assistant job opened in his office, Essalih, Culberson’s chief of staff, said he didn’t broadcast it because he feared being flooded with résumés. He figured if a senior position like Mitchell’s drew 100 résumés, a relatively junior position could bring in five times as many.

In fact, Florida Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart’s chief of staff, Nilda Pedrosa, said she saw more than 220 résumés for a scheduler the office hired last month. The response overwhelmed her staff, Pedrosa said.

On average, the applicants had five to seven years of experience and had worked for the Bush administration and ousted Republican lawmakers, she said. One applicant had 18 years of experience.

“The salary factor was not necessarily an issue for a lot of people we talked to, because they wanted to get back on the Hill,” she said.

She also recently hired a special projects coordinator but didn’t advertise for it, which is not uncommon.

About 80 percent of the congressional job openings aren’t posted, said Patrick Baugh, a House staffer who runs the House GOP job list. Even so, Baugh has seen requests to receive his twice weekly jobs e-mail increase fivefold. He now gets about 25 requests each week from people who want it delivered to their inboxes.

Nat Wienecke, a former assistant secretary of congressional affairs at the Commerce Department, has turned his focus away from Washington.

He’s sending résumés and scouting job openings but finds that most employers are looking for Democrats. And the recession means that the small consulting contracts that friends could throw his way in better times have dried up.

“The Washington side is a bit of a black hole because there are so many people with so much experience looking and the economy’s so tight,” said Wienecke, who has 14 years of government service.

In the interim, he landed a short-term contract building state-level coalitions for a generic pharmaceutical company. And he’s considering opportunities outside Washington.

Wienecke prepared for the tough slog by cutting expenses and moving his family into their basement apartment, renting the rest of their Capitol Hill house to an Obama appointee. The rental income covers most of the mortgage.

Brown, the unpaid intern, is still working the Hill for a job and has about a month’s worth of savings left.

“It’s like having a horrible disease. You have good days, and you have bad days. You have days where you wake up and say, ‘What the hell am I going to do?’” he said. “Then you have days where you wake up and realize there are a lot of people who have worse situations, and it could be a lot worse for me.”

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