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Several years ago, I spent a semester interning in the House of Representatives. A lot happened in those five months as an intern on the Hill (colloquially known in D.C. as a "Hilltern"), and it wasn’t all what I expected.
Here’s what I learned about being a Hilltern:
1. You will mostly be answering phone calls.
I spent about two thirds of my time on the Hill answering the phone. Many of these calls are short and sweet: people calling to show their support or opposition to the Congress member. Other times, you’ll get someone who called just to rant to you about how terrible the government is.
The most notable—and lengthiest!—call I received was from a man who told me, in depth, the scientific reasons why the United States should be trying harder to develop the technology to land on the sun. Maybe he was right (who knows? I stopped listening), but he was definitely barking up the wrong tree, telling all this to an intern with absolutely no power.
Understandably, you’re not allowed to hang up on people, so you just have to deal with the crazy.
2. You will learn how little the average American actually understands the government.
Out of those hundreds of phone calls you answer, most will be from your Congress member’s actual constituents. The other calls will be from people in random districts across the country who don’t understand how Congressional representation works. I interned for someone from New York, but I often received calls from people from places like North Dakota and Tennessee who wanted the Congressman to know they were dissatisfied with his stance on more progressive issues. That makes sense: New York and North Dakota are very different places. Which is why the Congressman was elected by New Yorkers, and is meant to represent his specific district.
Most interestingly, as interns we were advised not to explain this to people. In my opinion, the best thing to say would have been, “Ma’am, this Congressman only represents people in his district in New York. If you give me your zip code, I can help you find your own member of Congress to ensure that your voice is heard.” But the legislative assistant, who is in charge of the interns, told us we were to pretend we were recording their opinion, and let them say whatever they wanted to say.
That’s politics for you.
3. You’ll get to do research that could actually impact the Congress member’s decisions.
This is what I thought interning on the Hill would be: covering the issues the Congress member needs to know about for the next vote.
Much like the different staffers are in charge of different subject areas, so were the interns. At the beginning of my internship, the legislative staffers had the interns pick which subject areas we wanted to cover. One person covered the second amendment, while someone else covered healthcare, someone covered energy, and so on. I spent about a third of my time researching my chosen issues, certainly my favorite part of the job. This included online research as well as attending briefings and hearings on the Hill.
I paired up with the legislative staffer in charge of each issue, and reported any news and research I had found in the form of a memo, which they then used to influence their own work. In that way, the information I dug up on certain legislation actually could influence how to Congressman would proceed in the future.
4. You won’t really spend time with the Congress member.
Like, at all. You’ll see them coming and going, but they won’t stop to chat with you. (Unless you somehow picked the nicest and least-busy member of Congress ever.) We had a special lunch scheduled with the Congressman at the end of the internship, and that was the most interaction the interns had with him.
That’s okay, though. He's got a busy job.
5. You’ll make awesome new friends.
Intern culture is strong on the Hill. Young people cycle in and out of Congressional offices all the time, so when you begin your new internship there will likely be five or six other people around your age starting at the same time. That makes it really easy to develop friendships and get to know people who share your interests.
6. If you’re under 21, you’ll miss out on some great networking experiences.
Sorry, minors. The culture of happy hour and drinking in DC is strong, but when you’re working on Capitol Hill it’s even stronger. There were a ton of networking experiences available when I was on the Hill, but many of them were either at bars or at 21 and over events. A minor at the time, I felt like I was missing out on some great opportunities because of my age.
Of course, when you’re working on the Hill there are so many networking experiences that you will find ones that minors can attend. Many of the interns are college students, so there are a lot of other minors around. But that didn’t make me feel much better when I couldn’t go to exclusive rooftop networking parties, which are probably as awesome as they sound (I wouldn't know).
7. You will either love it or hate it.
From my experience talking with other Hillterns, there is no in-between.
For me, interning on the Hill hit home how badly I did not want to work there again. The stiffness of the work environment and the over-worked but under-paid staffers turned me off to the idea of staying on the Hill. (Getting up at 6 AM to drive the Congress member to an event, then staying in the office until 8 PM? No, thank you.)
On the other hand, some people love the feelings of power, importance, and change-making that a position on the Hill gives you.
Personally, I’m glad to have this position under my belt—I learned a lot about the U.S. government and politics working here, and I got to witness some truly incredible things, like votes being taken on the House floor.
Plus, I got to ride in the Capitol building's own underground subway, which was totally worth it.