Op-Ed: Congressional Intern Offers New Persepective on Washington D.C.
“Sir, I’m just an intern,” was a phrase I said a lot of during my spring semester as an intern in Washington, D.C. I had dealt with customer service before in the sense of helping organizations settle issues with customers in the private sector, but never could’ve imagined tensions being so high during the early months of 2018 when national issues were forcing Americans to take sides. But in the public sector, the concept of customer service has larger implications, considering that we are dealing with legislation that has real-world effects. As a student of a university affiliated with the United Methodist Church (Southwestern University), I was allowed to participate in the ‘Capitol Hill Internship Program,’ a consortium of Methodist colleges across America who rent out a house within walking distance of Union Station in Washington, D.C. whose students study and live in Washington for a full semester. Being one of only three sophomores that participated in this program felt like an honor, and with a new internship coming up in the House of Representatives, it had felt as if I had hit the political science jackpot. This was all after the two-day federal government shutdown over ICE funding that had put my hopes on pause, but that’s part and parcel of being a federal employee.
I speak as someone who served as a legislative intern in the House of Representatives from January to May 2018 in the areas of agriculture, commerce, economics, and foreign policy. I am going to provide a clearer picture of the responsibilities of those who volunteer at our nation’s highest institution of representative government for anyone interested in doing the same. With Congressional disapproval currently at 66 percent according to a recent Gallup Poll, many things occur in Congress that the average American should be aware of the next time they see a story about the happenings on Capitol Hill. Many important things happen behind the scenes on Capitol Hill that don’t get reported by mainstream media outlets, and to keep it to myself would be a disservice. Let’s begin with the job itself.
There are over 600 Congressional offices in Washington, D.C., spanning five separate buildings that all members of Congress (states and territories), Committees, administrative offices, and their staffers must work from. When you become an intern, a typical set of responsibilities might include everything from handling constituent mail; taking constituent phone calls, and writing policy memos from hearings to tasks such as giving tours around the Capitol to guests, attending policy briefings, and completing research as needed with findings reported to your Representative. You are a ‘public servant,’ meaning that you are accountable to the government in how you conduct yourself and how you deal with the public, mainly since the salaries of your superiors are based on money from the government. Because every district is different, just about every office on the Hill must have interns to keep up with the demands of the districts and the policy agendas that are carried out by the different parties and party leadership. I interned for former Representative, and Chairman of the House Rules Committee, Pete Sessions (R-TX-32) during a time when the Republican Party had full control over Congress and the White House, but even then, some hurdles had to be jumped over to implement the policy goals of Speaker Paul Ryan, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and President Donald Trump.
We had just gotten out of a two-day government shutdown in late January, and while hundreds of thousands of our fellow public servants were figuring out how they were going to pay their bills (much like now), we were also working to pass the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 started off as a bill that was introduced by Representative Kevin Brady (R-TX-8) back in November of 2017. The main purposes of this bill were to amend the IRS tax code to reduce tax rates for businesses and individuals and provide more tax credits for families and an end to the individual mandate clause of the Affordable Care Act (which we tried to repeal and replace with the American Health Care Act, but that’s an op-ed for another day). An individual mandate is a requirement by law for certain persons to purchase a good or service, meaning in the context of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 that enrolling into the federal healthcare system is now optional. This allows more flexibility for private insurers that might be partnered with businesses or unions. Because my Representative was the Chairman of a vital committee in the House, I got privileged access in seeing how this bill was crafted and the intricacies of moving it through Congress before being signed by the President and becoming the law of the land. Thank goodness that I paid attention in 4th-grade social studies when they showed us that School House Rock video about how bills in Congress get passed. Much of the information in that song on how bills in Congress are passed and how people can affect policy took place during the five months that I served in the House. Various examples of this process of passing legislation and public involvement in politics showed in the debates over the 2018 Budget of the Federal Government, witnessing the March For Our Lives protests over gun violence outside of my bedroom following the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, debates over America’s diplomatic role in the Syrian Civil War, and witnessing the creation of the first drafts of the USMCA trade deal and the 2018 Agriculture Improvement Act for national agriculture subsidies. It was a busy time to be an intern in the House of Representatives.
The House of Representatives moves to the rhythm of a fast-paced and unchanging routine. Like the intelligence community, everything moves on a need-to-know basis with party leaders and staffers working around the clock to meet the needs of their districts and parties. This method of conducting business is in contrast to the Senate, a chamber that I visited a few times for policy hearings and roundtable discussions held by think tanks and non-profits, where legislation moves to the slow rhythm of meticulous and careful planning. It’s effortless to get mad at our representatives in Congress when things in the country are not improving, but it is easy to forget the first duty these representatives have: their districts. It is the individual districts that voluntarily send all 435 members of the House to Washington, and it is they that have the power to get rid of those members. Understanding that all 435 members of the House of Representatives have obligation first to their districts is something that can be hard to remember when we see representatives that never seem to leave such as current Speaker Nancy Pelosi (a Congresswoman for California since 1987), Jim Clyburn (a Congressman for South Carolina since 1993), and Steny Hoyer (a Congressman for Maryland since 1981.
Work that needed to be done in the House of Representatives extends beyond just going down to the House floor to vote on the final issue. It is a routine that involves careful planning and research to make sure legislation is passed based on the needs of the country, rather than in the heat of the moment. It requires deliberation and cooperation to ensure that every district gets a piece of what they want and that neither party is left empty-handed. It’s parties working together to ensure that consensus and parties are working within their own sides to make sure that the legislative agendas of the conferences are concrete. It’s not an accident that the Democratic and Republican headquarters are within walking distance of the House office buildings. The Republican Party alone has five different ideological conferences in the House, while the Democratic Party has six.
As someone who served as a Congressional intern, it is my opinion that interns are some of the most valuable people in Washington. Everywhere you go in Washington, D.C, you will see enthusiastic young professionals who work tirelessly to help keep our federal institutions running efficiently. This commitment to public service was something that I saw with my roommates, some of whom served with me in Congress. We are the first line of defense between the public and the institutions that represent the public. It is a calling that requires temperament, a solid understanding of American civics, and an understanding of the institutions that our country was predicated on. Promoting American civics and greater public involvement in the political process is something that I see a lot of with a non-profit such as the YACU, of which I am proud to be a member. The youth are the future, and standing on the sidelines of public discourse helps no one.