The Senate Employment Bulletin, a weekly publication of job openings in Senate offices, usually features internship descriptions peppered with ominous lines like “The hours will be long, but the experience is priceless,” or “additional administrative support work will also be required,” or, worst of all, “This position is unpaid.”
If you really want to know what an internship on the Hill is like, though, go to the National mall on a sunny spring afternoon. Find one of the many college kids lying on the grass and start talking. They’re probably interns, and they just might be doing one of an intern’s many duties while they lie there—“field sitting.”
Congressional offices’ softball teams sometimes play on the mall after work. Between the countless tourists, unpredictable big-tent events and splotches of protestor-trod dust, real estate is precious. So, late in the day, they’ll send an intern out to reserve a field. He or she finds some space and just sits there until the team, sometimes with senator in tow, comes out. It’s a menial job. But where else can you take one of the most powerful men in America to the opposite field for an RBI double from a 1-2 count? welcome to your rookie season with Congress.
Of course, most of an intern’s time is spent indoors, doing actual work. Chris Cognato spent a year as a junior staffer – a little higher than an intern, he’s quick to point out, but “not far from it.” He did everything from giving tours of the capitol, to researching issues and attending lobbyist briefings, all while technically stationed in the mail room.
“There was mail and it had to get out and that was my daily job,” Cognato says. “on the other hand, there were opportunities to contribute; you just never knew when they were coming or what they’d entail.”
Don’t underestimate the responsibility of handling mail, though. Neither rain nor sleet nor snow nor hail can stop Americans from complaining about the government. lobbyist envelope-stuffing operations. earnest-college-student-sponsored-mailing lists. one-click-and-you’re-done e-mail petitions. Parents seeking an end to the war. Italian-american interest groups seeking a proclamation naming Antonio Meucci the true inventor of the telephone. They’ll all wind up in the hands of junior staffers or interns, and they’ll all get answered.
Almost all. Some letters can be so far out that a response, and its tax-funded cost, isn’t justified. cognato has seen mail postmarked from 2012, a petition to exorcise the whole congress, and complaints from a guy “claiming to be an exiled New York public school teacher who had been targeted by the government because of his affair with a former president.” Someone once mailed the office a brick. That’s it, just a brick.
As for those other “opportunities to contribute,” an intern has to be ready for anything. I need the signatures of three congressmen on this. get the intern. what’d the press say about our immigration reform ideas? get the intern. what’s our state’s percentage of senior citizens, and how do they break down by age, race, socio-economic standing, shoe size, and favorite ice cream flavor? get the intern.even at Cognato’s level, just one step above intern, he was able to research, debate and frame a bill encouraging science, technology, engineering, and math initiatives. The “Securing excellence in education for our Kids in math and Science act” reached the Senate floor in march 2006 and is still in committee.
Helping make laws is a far cry from field-sitting, a practice cognato’s office actually banned because staffers were too aggressive, sending interns out at all hours. His team was often forced to make the long trek down to the washington monument, roughly 8000 feet from the Senate office buildings.
“Still though,” he says, “my favorite memory was playing right in the shadow of the monument.” He told Rick Santorum his place in the batting order. He got a hit off arlen Specter. with a low-level job on capitol Hill, “the hours will be long,” “administrative support work” will probably be required, and, yes, the position could very well be unpaid, but you very well may remember it for entirely different reasons
Brian Cognato > University of Maryland College Park > Sophomore > English and Government and Politics
*Originally published in College Magazine’s print publication, Fall 2007 issue.