15 August 2011

The Capitol Hill Litmus Test

Posted by njreck13 under: Summer 2011 .

At the start of the summer, I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into. I had never worked in an office, let alone a Washington office, and I had never spent any time in DC. But as a government major, I could not turn down the opportunity to work for a Senator. This summer became the litmus test for my prospective government career: Can I work a 9-6 job? Can I live in DC? Will I enjoy the pace of Capitol Hill? The answer to those questions rang out a resounding yes.

I need to offer a quick caveat. The Senator’s press office was less than thrilled to hear that I was blogging about my job, and as a policy would not allow me to divulge the inner-workings of the office, or even the Senator’s name. The best I can do is say that I worked for a Democratic Senator in DC, and write about my more general experiences. However, through a bit of luck I was able to extend my internship into another office, and later will be able to write candidly about my internship on the House side.

In this first entry, I’ll write about the general workday and DC Life. In the next entry I will talk about some of the cooler things that I got to do while working in the Senator’s office. And in the last entry I will explain how my work with the Senator got me an internship with Congressman Barney Frank, the differences I saw between the House and Senate, and my general takeaway from the summer.

I love DC, and I really enjoy working on the Hill. Whereas metro rides during the beginning summer mornings are full of wide-eyed interns, by the middle of July, most have caught the blank stare of the daily commuter. That being said, despite the rut of routine, the excitement of walking to work past the Library of Congress, Supreme Court, and Capitol Building does not fade.

While Congress is in session, the workday is 9-6. Yet, the convention of an office schedule belies the incredible variety in the day-to-day work. The day can consist of any number of general, grunt-work intern tasks. For example, sorting mail is a staple in the day of the office intern. We also work the autopen whenever something comes through the office that needs to be signed. The autopen is a machine that can create an exact duplicate of the Senator’s signature. In turn, interns are often sent to other congressional offices to obtain signatures of intent on behalf of the office.  It was on such an errand that I nearly knocked Senator John McCain flat on his back. I turned a corner too quickly and almost bowled him over. He was very nice about the near incident, and all parties emerged unscathed. It is such high-profile encounters, not uncommon in the Senate office buildings, that made otherwise menial tasks so engaging.

In addition to these basic tasks, we are also assigned more interesting assignments depending on the needs of the staffers. The Senator’s office boasts an extensive staff, filling room after room down the hall. The administrative staff handles all the office paperwork and supplies, mans the front desk phones, and manages the employees. The legislative staff splits between Legislative Correspondents who handle constituent mail, and Legislative Assistants that work more closely in shaping the Senator’s legislative agenda. Outside of these positions is an entire legal and press staff to handle specific wording and all media attention. Additionally, the Senator has a personal staff of special assistants and a Chief of Staff.

The interns work most closely with the LCs, and thus, any substantive work that we received came from these staffers. For instance, I enjoyed composing Dear Colleague letters requesting action from other Senators, and letters that responded to particular constituent issues. We also would attend hearings and briefings and submit memos to the appropriate staffer to keep the office up to date. It was through these briefings that I learned the most about policy and how the Hill conducts business.

No two days were the same. The routine of each morning and the consistent hours were much easier to swallow when the same hours were spent differently every day. It also doesn’t hurt knowing that Georgetown waits after close of business. I’m not a city guy at heart, but DC won me over with its work-hard play-hard mantra. There was always some free activity going on around the city, like movie showings or softball on the Washington Mall. But more often than not the fun to be had came with a hefty price tag—particularly debilitating to the unpaid intern.

Now that I’ve slogged through the basics, the next entry will be on some of the more memorable things I got to do through the internship. A quick preview: meeting both the current and a former Secretary of State, hearing a Supreme Court Justice speak, greeting foreign dignitaries and Heads of State, and taking a peak inside the candy-filled desk on the Senate floor.

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