On Capitol Hill

Posted on 21. Sep, 2010 by in Features

Kevin Hu interned in the office of Representative Judy Chu over the summer. Max Ehrenfreund

The week of July 4, Congress is in recess. The cafeteria’s patrons, lining up with trays of food at the row of checkout counters, are dressed casually in polo shirts, tank tops, and khaki pants–no neckties. The cafeteria is in the basement of the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill, one of several granite and marble blocks clustered around the Capitol in Washington, D.C., where members of Congress and their staff have their offices.

In fact, you might think for a moment that you’re in a cafeteria at a large university. Most of the several thousand staffers running the day-to-day operations of the nation’s legislature are under thirty. They are recent college grads, off to research for their senator. They are high-school interns and undergrads, off to sort papers in exchange for just being here in this place. A few of the bunch will rise quickly to take on responsibility and influence. One or two of them will be leading our country twenty years down the road. But for now, they’re running the show from behind the scenes. Capitol Hill has a culture of youth, ambition, and idealism, and it is the source of federal law in the United States.

***

One of the cafeteria’s patrons today is Matthew Ellison ’10, a newly-minted staff assistant in the office of Rep. Jim Clyburn, the Majority Whip and third-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives. He is one of about twenty-five current Yale students and recent graduates working for members of Congress in Washington this summer.

“I love the Hill,” Ellison tells me.

Like many others who seek jobs in Washington, Ellison moved to the capital after graduation without knowing where he would work. Graduates entering other fields may be able to line up a job in January of their senior year, but vacancies in politics need to be filled quickly, he explained. Most people have to be in the District before they can have a chance of finding a position.

Ellison knew when he arrived in Washington that he wanted to work for Clyburn, a powerful legislator from his home state of South Carolina, and was able to meet with the chief of staff for Rep. John Spratt, who also represents South Carolina, through a friend of the family. Spratt’s chief of staff was impressed enough to put Ellison in touch with her counterpart in Clyburn’s office, who got him a position.

Ellison started as an intern, working without pay, a few weeks before I met him. When one of the staff assistants left, Ellison stepped in to fill the role. I met him during his first week in this new capacity.

This summer wasn’t the first time Ellison had been inside an influential lawmaker’s office. In the summer before his freshman year at Yale, Ellison interned under then-senator Joseph Biden from Delaware.

As Ellison tells the story, his geometry teacher’s band was performing at an event that Biden happened to be attending. Ellison–in what would later become a wise political move–came along too, and introduced himself. After the show, Biden spoke with the members of the band, and the geometry teacher let it slip that Ellison would be attending Yale in the fall. The senator decided there was room for this student in his office.

By the end of that first summer, Ellison was hooked. “The Hill is where all the action is,” he says. It’s where lawmakers and their aides are creating national policy, and there are opportunities even for a junior staff member to make the country a better place. He worked at a federal agency last summer but was frustrated by the bureaucracy there. He says there’s less red tape in Congress, which answers only to voters.

***

The first time Kevin Hu ’11 walked into the Longworth building’s basement cafeteria, he recalls seeing Rep. Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat with thirty years experience, just sitting at a table there, with his jacket off and his shirt un-tucked. “It’s always shocking,” Hu says of sightings like these.

Unlike Ellison, however, Hu and most of the other Yalies working on the Hill I talked to got their positions through the front door, by applying online or submitting a resume and cover letter.

One of Hu’s fellow interns, however, is the congresswoman’s nephew. It is not unusual for one of the interns in a congressional office to be a relative of the legislator, especially since the tasks interns complete don’t require much expertise. Interns, according to Hu, are “the moat that separates the staffers from everyone else.” They take calls, respond to letters from constituents, and give tours of the Capitol. They’re also given tedious research assignments. Hu recently was tasked with fact-checking hours of testimony from Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan’s confirmation hearings in the Senate.

But there are other assignments that make interning worth it. Emily Villano ’13 says her interest in the legislative process led her to apply for an internship with Rep. Greg Walden, who represents her home district in Oregon. The internship allowed her to listen in on briefings and hearings and to see how a congressional office operates from the inside.

Villano recalls one memorable hearing on the controversial Arizona law aimed at reducing undocumented immigration. The witnesses, all women, testified on how the law would impact their lives. They spoke of the abuse they had suffered at the hands of deputies and the trauma of children whose mothers were detained. Some listening were moved to tears. (The law is currently suppressed under a court injunction.)

Experiences like this made Villano’s time on Capitol Hill worthwhile, despite other, less glamorous assignments she received. She recalls days spent entering names into a database. “That would just be mind-numbingly boring,” she remembers. “I felt like I was wasting my life away.”

Friends and family from home tend to view these internships as prestigious, even though entry-level work in an office on Capitol Hill, as in any other office, can be dull.

“We’re certainly expendable,” jokes Hu. “There’s an army of us.”

There are about two thousand interns on Capitol Hill every summer, sprinkled across all 535 congressional offices. It’s enough undergraduates to form a small liberal arts college.

Hu expresses frustration over those interns who aren’t humble about their jobs. “You need some perspective,” he said. A congressional internship “inflates people’s egos. It’s horrifying.”

David Manners-Weber ’10 spent two of his undergraduate summers working on Capitol Hill. “I think there is an impression that Hill interns are bright, ambitious, and sometimes a little too big for their britches. As far as stereotypes go, it’s not a bad one,” he wrote in an email message. “You go to work in important-looking buildings and are in close proximity to important people—it’s easy to get it into your head that you’re an important person.”

There is even a widely-read blog dedicated to mocking interns who think too highly of themselves called “Spotted: DC [Summer] Interns.” The blog’s readers e-mail the editors with stories about interns embarrassing themselves. The following post is from this July:

Heard: The Fifth of July

I was in Longworth Cafeteria last week when I overheard two valley girls with red badges the table over. There was nothing out of the ordinary until the following exchange:

Intern 1: Is July 5th, like, a federal holiday?

Intern 2: Ummm. I don’t think so.

Intern 1: Then, why do we have off?

Intern 2: Maybe it’s because, like it was the first full day they really got to celebrate the Declaration of Independence.

Posts on the site feature interns all over the city, but most of the blog’s unwitting protagonists are wearing the ubiquitous red identification badge of congressional interns, which the blog’s editors have nicknamed “the red badge of courage.”

“God, it’s awful,” says Hu, when I ask him about the site.

Villano thinks this stereotype of congressional interns isn’t quite fair. “Potentially, people come in with greater ambitions –- and then they end up making coffee,” she says. “But for the most part, the interns I interacted with were good-natured people who were interested in politics the way I was.”

***

With so many young people in the city, congressional interns and staff can enjoy a busy social life. Hu and the other interns in Chu’s office go out for dinner regularly, and when there’s a chance to eat for free anywhere on Capitol Hill, they take advantage. When I met with Hu, they had recently sampled corn products at CornFest, an event for congressional staffers and interns sponsored by the National Corn Growers Association.

And at nighttime, Hu and his roomate band with other Yalies to visit clubs and bars around Washington, which are filled with revelers working in advocacy groups, lobbying firms, policy research centers, the press, and every branch of government.

“It’s amazing how much of the government is run by people under 35,” as Manners-Weber wrote.

This is especially true of Congress, where legislators depend heavily on their aides’ advice. “There is no way members of Congress can make informed decisions on every vote,” Hu insists. There are too many issues, committee meetings are scheduled for overlapping times, and most members return home on weekends to talk to voters.

That leaves much of the work of legislating with senior staff, who are often relatively young. “If you’re committed to what you do, you can move up the ladder pretty fast,” Ellison explains.

***

Ned Waller ’09 interned on Capitol Hill in the summer of 2006. His time there left him with little desire to return. Waller now lives in the capital and works for IBM.

I’ve met him for lunch at Ben’s Chili Bowl, a Washington landmark and guidebook destination. Ben’s is noisy and crowded on a Saturday afternoon. There isn’t room to stand on the restaurant’s checkered floor and all of the bright red booths are occupied. Large grills behind the counter are covered with roasting hot dogs.

Ben’s is about twelve blocks away from the part of the city dominated by federal office buildings, and the atmosphere is different. A crowd of tourists and locals with their families has replaced the mix of government officials, political operatives, and wonky-looking economists that flood lunch spots downtown during the week.

Waller contrasts the distribution of ages in Congress with the corporate world. “We have a range of ages in the office, not a gaggle of 17-year-olds.”

“The Hill is very young, very personality-driven, very partisan,” he adds. The policy research congressional aides do can be fascinating, he admits, but “even when you are way down on the totem pole, as I was as an intern, you can sense the desire for power and (federal) money that many on the Hill have.”

As we eat, Waller points out the black-and-white photographs decorating the walls, which show Ben, the restaurant’s owner, with a number of civil rights leaders. Ben’s, one of the few establishments to survive the race riots that devastated this neighborhood in 1968, is a local symbol of reconciliation.

Politics are everywhere in Washington, even in this back room of Ben’s, but it’s different on Capitol Hill. As Waller puts it, “The Hill has a crassness to it.”

Waller’s colleagues there loved to talk about elections, which frustrated him. “I take great pride in being well-informed and I like knowing what’s going on, but I don’t feel the need to discuss a Montana primary race, being a D.C. resident and a Louisiana native. That’s the kind of thing the Hill does,” he says. To Waller, Congress is as much about playing an intricate and high-stakes game as it is about creating a more perfect union.

***

Ellison sees it differently. Even a well-designed bill won’t become law unless enough legislators vote for it, so it matters who and what has the support of the public and of key interest groups. “Politics and policy can’t be separated. You need both to get anything done,” he says.

Most congressional offices have two components, he explains. Part of the staff focuses on legislative issues—researching problems in society and designing laws to address them. But another part of the staff is dedicated to communications—talking to constituents, representatives of interest groups, and other lawmakers.

The intersection of politics and policy makes Congress intriguing for Ellison—and it’s why he wanted to work in the Majority Whip’s office. Clyburn has a third group of staffers, the floor team, who are responsible for counting votes and making sure that bills the speaker brings before the House have enough support to pass. They have an important responsibility in the chamber, and Ellison hopes to work with them in the future.

Congress is not for everyone, Ellison concedes. “There are some people who had some connection to an office and got the internship, and this may be a good way for them to decide that politics is not what they want to do,” he says.

Ellison, however, hopes to continue working here as long as the opportunity lasts. He will matriculate at Georgetown Law School in the fall of 2011 and take night classes there while continuing to work on Capitol Hill during the day. Hopefully he will have a position with more flexible hours by that time. Currently, Ellison works late, taking messages for the chief of staff, drafting emails to Democratic members of the House, or supervising the office’s interns.

Every Thursday morning he helps set up the whip’s weekly breakfast for House Democrats. Clyburn’s office also provides dinner for the caucus whenever the chamber holds an evening vote. The office orders take-out, and Ellison and his coworkers bring the food on carts up to a conference room where lawmakers can help themselves.

For Ellison, even these small tasks are rewarding.  “Everything we’re doing has an impact on a huge number of people if we’re doing our job right,” he says. “If we get the votes for something we support, then people’s lives improve. If we don’t get the votes, people’s lives don’t improve.”

***

Sipping a gin and tonic in the Hawk and Dove, a Capitol Hill bar that serves congressional staffers of all stripes, Hu recalls the 2000 presidential election. On Election Night that year, his homework was to watch the news and color each state on a map of the United States red or blue as the newscasters announced results in favor of then Governor George Bush or then-Vice President Al Gore.

Hu’s relationship to politics in high school, however, was “kind of like cheering for a sports team, an undying faith in the Democrats or liberalism.” None of his friends were interested in politics or read the news regularly. Hu began to develop his political views seriously only when he joined the Yale Political Union. He became interested in social justice, an issue for which Chu has a record as a firm advocate.

Now, Hu has a place at the source of decisions on social justice—but his experience working on Capitol Hill has made him less idealistic. “It’s made me appreciate the complexity of the political process a lot more,” he explains. Things are no longer so black and white, or red and blue, as the case may be.

For example, he had been disappointed with President Obama for not insisting on a government-operated health insurance option and for continuing much of the previous administration’s policy toward terrorism. But Hu’s experience this summer has made him feel that the president is less to blame than Congress, where it takes a lot of e-mails, phone calls, and meetings to move anything through the tangled network of legislators and their aides.

It takes optimism. “I refuse to believe the world we live in now is as good as it’s going to get,” Hu says.

For people like him, work on the Hill can be frustrating, but it is never futile.

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