By Bret Bernhardt
In the overall scheme of things on Capitol Hill, interns, and junior staffers for that matter, seem to be a relatively inconsequential part of the process. However, in my experience, it is quite the opposite.
The Farmers Insurance commercial on TV says “we know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.” That would pretty much describe my experience of 30 years working on Capitol Hill. This is particularly true about working with interns.
I have seen hundreds of interns come through our offices over that period of time, and I’ve observed what makes it a successful experience and what makes it not so successful.
As chief of staff, I would give my “Fear of God” speech to the new interns. It could have also been described as Dorothy’s statement to Toto: “I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
I wanted them to have a good experience, both in the office and out of the office. For example, being aware that the streets of Washington, D.C. were different than those back home and that few good things happen late at night was one such principle.
This was very evident one day when three interns came into my office early in the morning clearly shaken from what had happened to them the night before.
“For example, being aware that the streets of DC were different than those back home and that few good things happen late at night was one such principle. This was very evident one day when three interns came into my office early in the morning clearly shaken from what had happened to them the night before.”
On a walk a couple of blocks from the Capitol, they had been held up at gunpoint and robbed. Naturally, they were upset and we began the process of making sure they and their parents knew they were OK.
Indeed, this was different than home.
But their “day job” had pitfalls of its own. How were they to find purpose and meaning in what appeared to be menial work?
Nearly all the interns I’ve worked with have truly been exceptional people. It’s only the rare occasion when something goes amiss. What makes for a good experience as an intern is their understanding of the important role they play.
Yes, there’s opening the mail, reading the email, answering the phone, doing the things nobody else in the office wants to do. But there is a purpose in this.
The reality is that they play a critical role in our representative form of government, and that is in facilitating the right of the people to petition their representatives.
Often times, it’s the intern or the junior staffer who makes the first contact with the constituent or member of the public. In doing so, they fulfill what the founders envisioned in the peoples’ interaction with their government.
“The reality is that interns and junior staffers play a critical role in our representative form of government, and that is in facilitating the right of the people to petition their representatives.”
Yes, there are the “crazies” who call, but I’m not referring to them. Some days, it’s only by God’s grace that you can get over that one call (or calls) that put you over the edge. That’s the subject for a later discussion in this space.
Look around the world and see the average citizens’ access to their government. You’ll find that we Americans are without question unique in the responsiveness of our government, particularly the legislative branch, to the citizens.
And in this regard, it’s the intern and those junior staffers who play the most important and significant role in making that connection happen.
I would also remind them that, while an intern, your life is not your own. Not only do they represent themselves, their families, communities, or universities … most importantly they represent the senator or representative in whose office they work.
So, if they’ve had a little too much fun in Georgetown, and it happens to get reported in the paper. Guess whose name is right beside theirs? That’s right, their employing senator or representative.
When given the opportunity and the challenge, every intern will rise to the occasion and make the experience a good and memorable one.
So, when you answer that phone, open the mail, or respond to the constituent, know that you are fulfilling a sacred obligation that we’ve made from our government to the governed … That the government is indeed theirs.