The bad rap of Capitol Hill interns

Each summer, interns march onto Capitol Hill and occupy it, but are they a conquering army?

Several summers ago, Chad Pergram, who runs a Washington intern program out of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, was leading a new intake group through orientation. An Ohio lawmaker invited his group to lunch in the Member’s Dining Room. Most of the new interns dressed appropriately, but one young woman wore flip-flops and a “skirt that was way too short.”

As Pergram recalled, “It reflected badly on her because everyone else looked great. Most are earnest and want to look nice, but some just don’t know what’s appropriate. I wasn’t embarrassed. She embarrassed herself.”

Since then, Pergram has been careful to prepare his interns for Capitol Hill. Before they even get to Washington, he has older women visit his orientation sessions wearing samples of suitable and unsuitable clothing. Once the interns arrive, he labels each day’s schedule with letters: D for dressy, BC for business casual, C for casual, and VC for very casual (meaning no one of importance will be seeing them that day.).

By now, the early-twenty-somethings are settling into their summer sublets or onto their friends’ pullout couches. They are navigating their way around the Capitol, learning the ropes, such as what Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) looks like, where the Rayburn cafeteria is, and where young staffers go to party.

Interns, by nature and purpose, are helpful. They inhabit every lawmaker’s office, sometimes 30 or 40 at a time. They make copies, do research, and gopher documents back and forth at the whim of the aides who supervise them.

Their sheer numbers make them a force all their own. Each summer they arrive with a certain boldness. They turn Capitol Hill on its head, creating a sharp contrast between the careful version of Congress and the playful, racier one that exists only in summer.

The culture for interns isn’t pretty. There is a stigma attached to them, one that was heightened by the scandal over Monica Lewinksy’s affair with former President Bill Clinton and by Washingtonienne’s sexual escapades; she had two internships before settling into a mailroom position for Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio).

According to aides who hold down salaried positions all year, there is no mistaking a summer intern, especially the women. These seasonal helpers descend on the Capitol like a swarm, the young women sometimes in skimpy attire — gold stiletto heels, thigh-high boots, belly shirts and very short skirts.

“They’ve got more of a wide-eyed-innocent look to them,” one Democratic aide said. “They are much more eager to share their opinion. I had this one kid telling me he worked on two campaigns so he thinks he can help the DNC. You have to be respectful because chances are they are a donor’s kid or a friend of the lawmaker.”

Male staffers look forward to the army of young things that wander the hallways as though they were a burst of warm sunshine after a cold winter. But female staffers who are just a few years older — still in their mid-20s — bristle at their presence, turning occasionally catty and looking down on them with disdain.

“We were talking about this at dinner the other night, about how some interns show up in some of the skimpiest clothing,” a female press secretary said. “One of the boys called them skinterns, which I thought was hilarious. Younger kids are showing their bellies. It’s not good for them in the long run. I’d prefer them to wear clothes.

“They become a source of conversation, a topic of joking. They [male aides] find it fun to talk about. I don’t think they find it attractive. We had a [recent] intern who we just called Belly. She walked around with a belly shirt on one time too many, and she did get into trouble. Nobody gave her work to do. This is kind of a serious place.”

Pergram first noticed the seriousness of Capitol Hill when he started the intern program seven years ago. This summer, his interns are placed in offices all over Washington — from House Minority Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), House Administration Committee Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) to “Meet the Press” and “Fox News Sunday.”

Shortly after the program launched, the university’s alumni magazine published an article and commented on how well the interns were dressed. “I noticed how students were treated differently when they were dressed up,” he said. “It’s Washington; perception is reality.”

One young Republican female aide was so incensed by the current look of female interns that she typed up a list of what she calls “daily offenses” that include things such as metallic shoes and handbags to wife-beater tank tops.

She remarked, “If you are going to wear stilettos or heels, no complaining about how they hurt. Interns need to learn to walk in them. My favorite term is the Saturday-night intern, one who always dresses like it is a Saturday night. They are all over.”

She insists she’s not entirely hostile toward interns — after all, she was one: “I love interns, I really do. They are a huge help and add a lot to the offices. I just think it is not difficult to be appropriate and cover up, and their dressing offends me. They are a little naive.

“The best advice I got before interning was to listen more than I talked, ask questions and not act like I knew anything. The naivety blurs the line to be almost disrespectful in a way.”

Many offices have in recent years adopted a hard-line stance, instituting dress codes and giving stern talks to interns who cross the line. Some have been sent home to change their clothes or, in one instance, forced to stay seated in her see-through capris until the boss’s wife left the office.

“They should dress professional, and we demand that,” said Thomas Bean, spokesman for Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), whose office has a strict no-jeans policy. “They shouldn’t dress like they’re working a corner. You shouldn’t be dressing like Paris Hilton, especially in the hamburger commercial.”

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) remarked, “We’re not concerned about how our interns dress because I hire sharp, aggressive, attractive, brilliant, professional up-and-comers who squarely see me as a nothing but a rung on the ladder to their status,” he said.

Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) was equally unconcerned. “They can’t wear jeans,” he said. As for what his interns are wearing these days, he said, “I just haven’t noticed. I have a dress code. That way we’re covered.”

Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) took a sympathetic approach: “These are young men and women, and they can’t be expected to be decked out in Brooks Brothers,” he said, recalling his own days of interning for then-Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and wearing the same suit repeatedly, trying to mix it up with different ties.

Why then, do some interns dress inappropriately?

Various theories include everything from economics to the humidity to being too young to know any better. “It’s summer, it’s warm out, they’re on vacation,” Bean reasoned. “It’s more the girls than the guys. A guy is not going to come work in short shorts.”