A for attitude

Answering phone calls and sorting the mail weren’t precisely what they expected to be doing. This summer’s interns on Capitol Hill have their sights set higher. Some expected to help write bills, join codels and get significant face-time with lawmakers.

Every year, interns arrive en masse to the Capitol, excited by the prospect of being near power. To them, passing senators in the hallway is like seeing movie stars. They dream of walking with lawmakers and influencing policy. So the reality of internship duties — menial office tasks such as stapling, copying, reeling off form letters and running errands — can c ome as a surprise.

“You feel like you’re not using your full abilities,” said Melissa Mowery, an intern for Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), who said she felt disappointed after a morning of logging constituent information from a box of mail into a computer. “I had expected to be learning more about bills,” she said.

“I never thought I’d hate sitting in a chair so much,” said fellow Webb intern Jaclyn Tatge, echoing Mowery’s complaint.

She described sorting mail as “tedious work.” She added, “I never thought I’d be so busy.”

Tatge did say in the interview that the work she did in Webb's office was what she expected to do and what her internship program had told her to expect.

One congressional intern only attends hearings and briefings and refuses to do secretarial work, said a fellow intern in the office, requesting anonymity.

“He’ll read the newspaper, but won’t do anything else,” she said.

When a legislative aide vacationed recently, the intern volunteered to fill in. “He said, ‘Do you want me to take care of the China stuff for you?’ ” she said. The aide responded in the negative.

A congressional intern on a recent lunch break also expressed disillusionment with his internship.

“I was expecting something more meaningful,” he said, through bites of salad at the Rayburn House Office Building Cafeteria. “I’m a government major, and you could do this in any office. It’s mainly busy work.”

Chores like sorting mail and answering the phone, he says, were not what he expected. “I think we’re capable of handling more,” he said.

Some agree but don’t complain about it. Finishing up lunch in the Russell Senate Office Building vending area, Tom Koester, also interning with Webb, said his job is not as fun as “seeing senators debate the Iranian challenge or the economic crisis,” but he appreciates constituent mail because “you can see how government relates to them.” He says he’d like to attend more hearings and assist staffers with research, but for now, “we’re swamped in the office.”

Though most interns consider hearings the prized task, those meetings, often long and laced with technical language, have proven tough to endure. One intern with a blond ponytail nodded off several times during a global warming hearing in the Cannon House Office Building. Other interns doodled and tapped their toes, their eyes exploring the ceiling tiles at an Environmental Protection subcommittee hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building.

“It’s an interesting hearing for a lot of interns to show up at,” commented one staffer. There was standing room only, and interns filled several rows of chairs.

“You always dream of having your boss on speed dial,” said an intern for Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) who wished to speak anonymously. So far, he has met the congresswoman once, but said, “That’s to be expected.”

“Generally, we’d all like to have more face-time with the boss,” said Matt King, an intern for a Senator he declined to name. Though power-lunching with the boss is “understandably” out of the question, he says he still feels like an important part of the staff.

“I guess you assume people will look down on you, but we’ve actually been give some substantive stuff to do, proving that we’re respected,” said King, whose tasks include attending hearings, writing up memos, and leading Capitol Hill tours.

But he still has time in the day to visit the Senate gift shop in Russell Senate Office Building. On a recent afternoon, King and fellow senate intern Steven Greene purchased shot glasses.

“Dude, we took like a two-hour lunch break,” King said to Greene.

How do interns gain the wrong impression about their summer jobs?

A spokesman and former intern for Rep. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) said interns are told up front that their work will consist of office tasks, though hearing attendance is possible.

“We manage the expectation upfront,” he said.

But some have trouble hearing it. “They tell you half secretarial work and half legislation-cool stuff,” said an intern in a different office, requesting anonymity. She attends a California college, declining to name it. She has been disappointed that the bulk of her duties has been filing and alphabetizing.

Getting to attend hearings, she says, is something she does on her own. After two weeks, she holds out for a more exciting experience, dealing with legislation, researching and working more with staff, who have remained “isolated” from the interns, she said.

“You come here thinking you’ll be working with congressmen and making a difference,” she said. “Just the prospect of being on the Hill with a congressman sounded cool to me.”

John Connaway, a sophomore at University of Kentucky and an intern for Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), sees things differently. He happily does office tasks and recently felt privileged to shadow the congressman for a day. He offers advice to other interns disappointed to be doing the small tasks.

“If you do good work, who knows? You might get asked back for a second internship or a staff position,” he said. “Our main thing is to make connections, do good office work, and pad our résumés.”

Interns with no expectations are better off, but those who expect something are more entertaining, a House aide said, requesting anonymity.

“We had a potential intern who was studying international relations who asked what the odds were that [the congressman] would take her overseas … while she was interning for our office (I think my response was a very monotone ‘hopefully nil’),” the aide wrote in an e-mail.

Anther intern, fresh out of high school, expected a lot of face-time with the congressman. “When she realized that wasn’t going to happen, she didn’t take the news well and tried another tactic: She began hiding notes to him around his office,” the aide recalled. “Thankfully, we intercepted all of them before he did and talked to her about her expectations of having open communication with the congressman on a regular basis.”

A curious side note: Her goal of interning with the office, the aide wrote, was “to get a job as a lobbyist,” which “sadly did not work out for her either. Last I heard she was working for a place back home that sold sod. Reality can be rough.”

This summer the aide worked with an intern who spent much of her time on Facebook and Google Chat. “She came to the Hill expecting high-level briefings and to be party to consultations with heads of state. She got Capitol tours and constituent call-screening duty. … Some interns (like her) just expect some ‘West Wing’-style political thrill ride, and so they’re unhappy being there no matter what they’re doing,” the aide wrote.

Previously, he recalled, there were two interns so incompetent the office banished them to the upstairs storage cage, where they “spent five exciting weeks in the nation’s capital organizing and cataloging congressional office supplies.”

Staffers, too, can suffer from the attitude problems that interns do.

“I’ve seen staffers come to the Hill thinking they are going to write bills and go on codels [congressional delegation trips],” a Senate Democratic aide wrote in an e-mail. “There are a lot of over-inflated egos on the Hill, and many people here try to pretend they are more important than they actually are.”

Most people on the Hill with such egos are “those that are actually glorified interns,” he said, meaning that “they actually do work that could be easily done by interns, and that’s what scares them.”

During summer intern season, the aide said, he sees staffers treating interns as “lesser beings.”

“I think a lot of staffers look down on the interns, mock them and make fun of them,” he wrote.

“I can’t count how many times I have heard some LC [legislative correspondent] talking about how stressful and busy their week has been because they had ‘soooooo many briefings and soooooooo many meetings to attend,’ when in reality they were sent there by an LA [legislative assistant] who didn’t want to waste time attending. Essentially they scratch a few notes that the LA probably never even reads.

“If the office really gave a [expletive] about the issue, the LA would be there. Oh, and the meetings they take? Same thing. If the issue was important or controversial, or the office didn’t know which way they were going on the issue, the LA or the senator would be in the meeting. In reality, they are a stand-in dummy, a placeholder so those constituents or that lobby effort feels as though they were heard … too bad for them it was by someone who really has no effect on policy whatsoever.”

The aide’s advice to interns: “Come here to learn and have fun. Take the narcissistic legislative correspondents and staff assistants with a grain of salt lest you return to the Hill one day and develop that over-inflated sense of self-importance. You’ll just end up looking like a d-----bag to those that know better.”

Not all interns fall prey to high expectations, but they don’t necessarily like the reality. “It’s actually been a lot better than I expected. It’s not like I’m making coffee,” said Paul Teten, an intern for Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.). His experience includes attending hearings and reading and answering constituent mail, which he says gives him an inside look at how government works.

Teten says that though he “tried not to build assumptions” coming into the internship, other interns have.

“They expect to be talking to the senator, and the reality is that’s not going to happen,” Teten said. Getting to spend quality time with the senator, he says, is the “general attitude” among interns.


After the print publication, Ms. Tatge wrote that her comments were taken out of context.  The Hill has published this letter .

 Story on Sen. Webb interns — ‘A’ is (also) for ‘apology’

Posted: 09/10/08 05:24 PM [ET]

July 31, 2008

I am disappointed and dismayed by your article “ ‘A’ for attitude,” published July 28.

The article omits key parts of my interview. I told your reporter at the outset that the assigned work was what I expected because I had been briefed by my program on the clerical work I would be doing. And, that I did not expect to work on other things. I also volunteered, at this time, that working for Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) was a great experience and a great opportunity, which I would do again. I also said it was interesting to learn from logging mail what issues the people of Virginia were concerned about. None of these statements made it into print.

Other comments were taken out of context. I told the reporter we interns had worked four hours that morning logging in letters from a petition involving animals, all identical except for the different names. It was in this specific context that I said sorting mail was tedious and that I never thought I would be so busy. I told your reporter this was my first taste of a full-time job, how it was a relief after several hours on this petition to move to the next petition, and that I never thought I would hate sitting in a chair for so much of the working day. All those comments, off-the-cuff, were not meant to criticize the work we interns were assigned. They were simply a reflection that “real world” work in the senator’s office, on important constituent mail, was a much harder task, including physically, than I had ever expected. Your reporter spun these comments in a far different fashion.

I regret very much my choice of words and my poor judgment in speaking with your reporter. I apologize here to Sen. Webb for any misimpression my words left. However, they were used out of context. I am portrayed as an intern who did not value the wonderful opportunity she was given and who did not want to work hard; i.e., who deserves, implicitly, an “F” for attitude. In fact, I am a 17-year-old rising high school senior who worked incredibly hard the entire week, was praised for her work ethic by the senator’s staff, and greatly enjoyed my experience.

Your article is titled “ ‘A’ for attitude.” Respectfully, “ ‘A’ is (also) for apology.” I made mine to Sen. Webb’s office, and here again. I think you owe me one as well.

America needs responsible journalism and your article lacks it, at least as to me.

Sincerely,
Jaclyn E. Tatge

Editor’s note: The Hill acknowledges that Ms. Tatge said in the interview that the work she did in Sen. Webb’s office was what she expected to do, and what her program had told her to expect. A sentence to this effect is being added to the online article. The Hill regrets this omission and any other miscommunications or omissions that might have occurred during the interview.