For the strong-willed who want to step feet into the powerful Washington, D.C., political world, starting as an intern in a congressional office on Capitol Hill is a necessary rite of passage.
As a member of this year’s Washington, D.C., Internship Program and as an international student from China, my working experience at a congressional office in the House of Representatives is unique.
It’s almost the end of our program, and I am quite confident in saying that the information I have gained from the inside can only be understood by those who once had the same experience.
The smiles and tears can only be shared among young interns who know how things work in Congress.
Now let’s take a look at the hierarchical layout of a congressional office in order to uncover the silent office battle. You have a big boss at the top, the congressman.
He can be busier than a working bee when Congress is in session. Your mighty boss will have many meetings each day, and I doubt his schedule will squeeze in his lunchtime.
When a vote is called, he needs to rush down the elevator, take the long tunnel in the basement of the office building and run to the House floor.
He has 15 minutes to vote by swiping his card, and sometimes he needs to prepare a fierce debate against opposite-party House members while smiling to C-SPAN brown-box cameras to impress his constituents.
Interns quickly come and go; your boss doesn’t have that much time to calculate the turnover rate of his interns, but at least he will greet you every morning when he comes in and when he returns from the House floor after taking a breath.
Then there is the chief of staff, in charge of overall office operations and the supervision of key staff members.
You also have the legislative director, the brainpower behind the congressman.
She makes recommendations regarding the pros and cons of particular issues and monitors the entire legislative process.
Similar to the job functions of the legislative director, your office will have several legislative assistants, each specializing in a portfolio of important issues that the constituents care about.
Lobbyists often have meetings with legislative assistants to express their support of or opposition to certain legislation, instead of meeting the congressman in person.
Then you have a press secretary, who maintains positive relations between the congressman, constituents and the public. The press secretary’s job is to communicate effectively with media.
The office also has a scheduler that serves as a personal secretary for the congressman.
The scheduler allocates the congressman’s time among the various demands from different parties and makes all kinds of arrangements.
Finally, here come our newbies. Many young people who were previously interns and aspired to start careers in Congress often find job positions as a staff assistant in the office.
Staff assistants pretty much have the same duties as interns, but they are paid and are treated as a formal part of the office, not as easily disposable.
Staff assistants get to pick other college students to fill in their familiar positions as interns and are invited more frequently by senior staffers to attend meetings, briefings and hearings with the congressman. They are also sometimes invited to meet with lobbyists.
But with an entry-level salary of roughly $30,000 per year, living in an expensive city with a high tax rate like Washington, D.C., is a little too harsh for these young minds with big dreams.
Government work isn’t easy. According to what I’ve seen, the staff assistant and legislative correspondent who was just hired in our office is always the first person that comes in, at 8:30 a.m., is often done at work after 5:30 p.m. and seldom has a lunch break longer than 30 minutes.
He has to deal with hard phone calls with angry constituents shouting about the imperfection of the government, and with e-mails that threaten the resignation of high-ranking government officials.
The benefits a young, entry-level staff member receives solely depend on the political fate of the congressman.
Luckily, the congressman I’m working for is now serving his ninth term in the House, and most of the staffers in our office are old-timers who have passed their forties.
What is the fate of staffers for more vulnerable congressmen, you ask? With job experience at hand, some quit their jobs after one or two years and go on to graduate school or to seek a better position.
Yet plenty of them choose to stay and stick to their government jobs.
They feel satisfied and significant. They are proud of what they are doing. They know that somehow, somebody has to do the work.
If you want to work on Capitol Hill, do it. The process will be painful and you will surely have moments when you doubt your beliefs and question if the work you are doing is really that important and meaningful.
However, in the end, when you look back at your life after college, you will find yourself a winner, just like every young person in Washington, D.C., who fights but never gives up.