What do you get when you put together 435 different people—Members of Congress— that belong to different political parties and are from different places? Oh, yeah, don’t forget to add all of their different staffers and interns into the equation. The answer is chaos.
The United States House of Representatives is an exciting but strange place. There are three House office buildings which contain the offices of all of the members of Congress: Cannon, Longworth, and Rayburn. These buildings are a hop, skip, and a jump away from the Capitol building, where the House chamber is located, the same site where the State of the Union speeches happen every year.
Before COVID-19, the House office buildings were packed with policy wonks of all walks of life, dressed in their most boring office attire, walking around, and looking extremely busy and important. I’m not sure what the House of Representatives buildings look like right now, but in our COVID-19 times, hopefully it’s not as packed.
Important people are constantly coming through, so you have to act professional at all times. If you’re not having a great day, you still have to be nice to all of the people that drop by. Whether they’re diplomats, with advocacy groups, or constituents, anyone in the office is important. As an intern, you’re the face of the office, and you must greet visitors with politeness and courtesy, offering them a coffee or perhaps a bottle of water.
I had heard that making coffee was the most demeaning aspect of interning in Congress, but since I am a total coffee snob, I was really looking forward to it. Though people had said that making coffee for lobbyists was a downside of being a Congressional intern, I never had to. Maybe they were weirded out by my enthusiasm? Visitors I greeted always asked for bottled water given a choice between that and coffee. So, I guess I lucked out.
Our office had a Keurig, which I used to make myself three to four coffees a day. That sounds like a lot of coffee, but I also had a lot to do: sorting mail, arranging stuff in the office, talking to constituents, and generally making sure that stuff got done. Sometimes I needed caffeinated energy to get stuff done. Other times, I just needed patience.
Believe me, when you’re talking to a constituent who is either spouting random conspiracy theories, has a bone to pick with the Member of Congress for which you work, or is the 2,323,123th person to call in about a certain topic, you really need as much energy as you can muster to be professional and polite. You’re supposed to facilitate democracy, after all.
There was also tons of free food. As an intern, one of my jobs was to attend briefings and summarize them for the Member of Congress’s staff. Regardless of who planned the briefings—Democrats or Republicans—there was always some delicious food, ranging from different types of cookies and brownies (no, no special brownies) and sometimes even boxed lunches with the choice of turkey, tuna, and/or ham sandwiches, which also contained chips, an apple, and a cookie.
For someone who wasn’t getting paid and didn’t have a lot of time, free food was amazing, because I could always save it for lunch or dinner (avoiding a time-consuming trip outside of Capitol Hill to get food), or even take it home.
I couldn’t find housing in the beginning of the Trump administration, so I lived in a hotel. Budgeting sucked. I ate the same things pretty much every day, sticking to a strict budget. On weekends, I treated myself to a turkey burger and sweet potato fries while watching college sports on the hotel TV. I planned to get an apartment, but even as someone who had lived in D.C. before, I couldn’t find a place to live.
I put it all on my credit card. Yup, interning in the House was definitely not on the house (or the House).
It was worth it, though, to work on really important and cool stuff, and to be surrounded by people who actually liked watching CSPAN as much as me.