The Life of the Unpaid Hilltern

“People will tell you your whole life what you can’t do.”

Senator Heidi Heitkamp, Democrat of North Dakota, looked out over the moderately sized crowd of interns in Russell’s Kennedy Caucus Room. Hearings on the sinking of the Titanic had taken place in this room. Crucial parts of the Watergate investigation had taken place in that room. And now, in SR-325, she was closing out the intern lecture series.

From growing up in a town where her family of nine made up a tenth of the population, to her breast cancer diagnosis during an unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign, to her 2012 election to the United States Senate—which, she noted, Nate Silver (A.B. ’00) had given an 8% chance of occurring—the junior senator from the Roughrider State wove an inspiring story that continued to return to two points. First, political service is a worthy goal towards which to strive. Second, anything is possible if you set your mind to it.

***

Since July 10, I have been interning at the Office of U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), 706 Hart Senate Office Building, 120 Constitution Avenue NE, Washington, D.C. (Please send us mail). Hart is full of summer interns—there are nine in our office alone–and there are six other office buildings besides ours that make up the Capitol complex. Russell and Dirksen, the two other buildings on the Senate side through which we pass to reach the Capitol, are equally packed with (mostly unpaid) college students during Washington’s swampy summer months. The House office buildings, Rayburn, Longworth, and Cannon, appear to be, from my infrequent visitations, mad houses. Four hundred and thirty-five offices are crammed into three four-story buildings, while the Senate only has to deal with one hundred.

As I reach the halfway point of my time in the Senate, Senator Heitkamp’s message is reassuring. I often estimate that there are between four thousand and five thousand interns on Capitol Hill, each as involved with politics and policy as I am. Everyone here is striving for something, not the same thing, but something. It can be intimidating.

It is obvious that there are tens of thousands of young people across the U.S. with dreams of having a career in public service or the public sector, and many, many of these people are not lucky enough to find their way to an internship on the Hill. But seeing all these thousands of interns, plenty smarter than I, plenty more ready to ruthlessly climb the ladder of success than I, gave me pause. What chance is there for me? Well, when it all boils down to it, about the same as all the rest of these folks—after all, we’re just college kids on summer break.

***

The work we do is not necessarily glamorous. Today, we listened to our one-thousandth voicemail, a benchmark for calls we passed long ago. The debate on the fate of the Affordable Care Act had caused our office to be inundated with correspondence; I can’t imagine how the poor interns of Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) or John McCain (R-AZ) must have felt. Calls aside, all of us are trained and authorized to give tours of the Capitol to groups of fifteen or fewer constituents, and we are often sent around the Capitol complex to collect signatures and file bills. So far, I have not had to get coffee for anyone, which I count as a win.

Of course, as with any summer internship, getting coffee with people is a common pastime. I’ve sat down with staffers from the House and Senate side, to shoot the breeze and pick their brains, from both Connecticut and from Illinois. So far, three of the five people I have or have scheduled chats with are University of Chicago alumni. Go Maroons.

***

I say Senator Heitkamp’s talk was reassuring, but it was not only the talk that has reassured me in my time here that a career in public service may be an admirable goal.

After the third vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the vote on the so-called “skinny repeal” bill, failed, our office received hundreds and hundreds of calls thanking the Senator and his staff. Senator Blumenthal, a member of the unified Democratic caucus, voted against the repeal which failed 51-49 after Republican Senators Collins (ME), Murkowski, and McCain jumped ship.

These calls were unlike the usual ones we had to sift through. Yes, in the days leading up to the vote we had received hundreds of calls begging us to fight the repeal, to delay the vote, to filibuster-by-amendment. Those callers tugged at our heartstrings, relaying stories of sick and ill loved ones and family members, friends and neighbors, men and women suffering from diseases and ailments of so many different sorts.

But these calls after the vote, the caller’s absolute relief, their feelings that prayers vindicated, their voices heard, these were the calls that really made me feel something deeper. A little bit of faith was restored to them. I felt like I was part of something larger than myself in the smallest possible way, a part of something larger than any other collective being of which I had been a part in the past. Corny, I know, but that’s what I thought of during Senator Heitkamp’s speech.

Generally speaking, when I’m asked what I want to do with my life, I say that I want to help people, and I think effective politics and governance is a way to go about doing just that. Whether it is working as a Hill staffer, running for local, state, or federal office, or even simply voting, engagement with government can make our country better. If you want me to talk more about my internship, my coffee chats, my general experience, don’t hesitate to reach out, but the message I want to leave on is another quote borrowed from Senator Heitkamp’s address:

“Where are the opportunities to listen, to bridge the divide, to come together?”

To me? Good government.

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