Every summer, thousands of interns flood Washington D.C.: crowding the metro, the security lines outside of government buildings, and the checkout of the local Trader Joe’s. As an intern for a Congressman on Capitol Hill, I earned the extra title of “Hilltern” (Hill+intern) that carries a positive or negative connotation depending on who you’re talking to.
When I mention my internship, I am guaranteed an inquiry as to what I actually did everyday. My days consisted of attending Congressional briefings or committee hearings, leading constituents on tours of the Capitol building, administrative odd jobs for staffers, legislation research projects, eavesdropping on lobbyist/staffer meetings, and answering lots and lots of phone calls. Every day was different depending on the legislative calendar, the obligations of the member, and the news cycle. I left the internship with a greater understanding and insight into the workings of Congress. Capitol Hill is a world I never knew existed, and I’m here to share a few of my key takeaways.
Who runs the world? Millennials
The politicians we see on TV tend to be the age of our parents or grandparents, but behind every politician is a staff of millenials. They do everything from following the issues, prepping their bosses for meetings, planning the member’s schedule, and even drafting legislation. Many of these staffers only have undergraduate degrees, often working their way up the hierarchy of Capitol Hill. While Chiefs of Staff tend to be older and more experienced, walking around the halls generally feels like a stroll through the Tanner Building.
This insight helped me realize the young people can become involved in government right now. It’s not just a place for political science majors either, as people from all backgrounds are needed to help politicians understand the variety of issues at play.
Not the typical “recess”
Every few weeks, Congress goes on “recess,” with longer breaks in August and December. This is a point of criticism from the public, and I personally spoke with constituents who urged Congress to cancel “vacation.” I understand the frustration of seemingly never-ending gridlock on Capitol Hill, but cancelling recess will not solve the problem. Despite its name, recess is work time. On the official House calendar it’s called “District Work Period,” because the members return to their home districts and meet with their constituents, attend events, host town hall meetings, and talk with the people they represent. As I explained to constituents, it’s time for the members to directly interact with their constituents and discern what is best for the district, arguably the most valuable time the member has.
Don’t forget AP GoPo!
As previously mentioned, an important intern task is to answer and record constituent opinions. I spoke with hundreds of people about issues like impeachment, the crisis at the Southern border, prescription drug pricing, etc. It was inspiring to talk to people who were concerned about finding solutions, and our office took constituent opinions very seriously. However, I realized that many Americans don’t understand the jurisdiction and roles of the House of Representatives. For example, one woman called to complain that the air conditioning for all California DMV’s was centrally-controlled from Sacramento. She felt this was environmentally irresponsible, since the need for AC and heating varies based on local weather. While I agree that this is a problem, it could be better handled on a local level.
If you feel inspired to contact your local Congressional office about an issue you care about, go for it! It helps staff gauge the opinions of constituents. If you really want to make a difference, though, make sure you are going through the right channel to get the best help.
The fun stuff
Walking the halls of the office buildings was an adventure because I never knew who I might see. I did a complete double-take the first time I passed Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the hallway–she’s shorter than you would think. Same goes for Nancy Pelosi. One highlight was photobombing pictures of Pelosi leaving a press conference as I was headed to a meeting with my other intern colleagues.
Once, while leading a tour, I passed Senator Elizabeth Warren on a staircase. Unfortunately, nobody in my group knew who she was, so the excitement of the encounter was lost on them. I also found myself sitting at a table next to the House Minority Leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, at Shake Shack, his security detail guarding the doors. Seeing these leaders was a surreal reminder that I was working alongside people making big decisions for our country.
Politicians are trying their best
Although politicians often get a bad rap, most are truly trying their best and sacrificing to serve their country. Maybe this is too idealistic of an opinion, but I saw firsthand how busy the Congresspeople were between meetings, votes, events, etc. They have to be personable and kind to everyone they meet, and they sacrifice leisure and family time. Although partisan divides exist, politicians are coming to the table with ideas they think will be best for our nation.
Admittedly, there are frustrating and difficult elements in our political system. After my experience waking the marble hallways of Capitol Hill, though, I feel greater awe and respect for our nation, and I’m inspired to stay involved in the government that is both by the people and for the people.
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