Washington prepares for a summer without interns

Washington prepares for a summer without interns
© Greg Nash

Grayson Ross, a recent graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, planned to spend his last semester of college as hundreds of other aspiring policy aides do: walking through the halls of the Capitol building, answering constituent phone calls and observing the legislative process as an intern for a prominent Democratic senator.  

The coronavirus pandemic changed all of those plans.

Ross’s internship essentially ended the day the first case of the novel coronavirus was detected on Capitol Hill, and by the next week he was back home to Texas. 

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As the federal government, think tanks and other organizations across Washington work to address the coronavirus pandemic, many of them will do so without the support of interns.

It’s still possible for House and Senate offices to hire interns for the summer, but it would be for telework and there are several hoops to jump through. As a result, a number of offices simply aren’t planning to use interns this summer.

And the issue goes well beyond Congress.

The executive branch, the Supreme Court and the private sector are also curtailing programs given safety concerns about spreading the virus. Washington, D.C., is still under a stay-at-home order, though Mayor Muriel Bowser has signaled the city could begin a slow reopening on Friday.

The Fund for American Studies (TFAS) is one of the dozens of summer programs in Washington that provides internship pairing services for students and housing. The program usually welcomes 350 students each summer, but as of this week only has about 200 enrolled for their now-virtual program. 

Joseph Starrs, director of U.S. programs for TFAS, said the dip in enrollment comes as Capitol Hill and federal agencies have nearly completely abandoned their summer internship programs. 

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“Most students dream of coming to D.C. and being on Capitol Hill,” Starrs said. “But the big shiny, shiny object internships aren't really there for the most part.”

A survey from the National Association of Colleges and Employers this month found that 22 percent of employers in the U.S. have canceled internship opportunities for the summer. The internships that are available in Washington are predominantly at nonprofits, media outlets or other private organizations, Starrs said.

Media outlets such as NPR and Slate have announced they’re canceling their internship programs. One of the city’s largest think tanks, the Brookings Institution, is hosting a remote internship program but did not respond to The Hill when asked how many students they are taking this year compared to last. 

Some Congress-affiliated PACs, such as the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’s BOLD PAC, are still hosting remote internships. 

And the National Association of Colleges and Employers survey did find that more employers are starting virtual internships. But Starrs said that hasn’t really happened to a great extent with congressional offices.  

“Capitol Hill has probably been the biggest nut to crack we have so far,” Starrs said. “We haven't had anybody in the offices agree to host any of our virtual interns, and that's also true of most federal agencies that we normally deal with.”

In May, the House Administration Committee amended their member handbook allowing telework for interns. According to a spokesperson for Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntClash looms over next coronavirus relief bill Senate Democrats urge Pompeo to ensure Americans living overseas can vote in November Russian bounties revive Trump-GOP foreign policy divide MORE (R-Mo.), chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, Senate offices can also choose to hire interns for telework while the Capitol building remains closed. 

However, if an office does decide to hire interns — or any new employees, for that matter — they must jump through the logistical hurdle of providing government laptops that are needed to set up House or Senate emails. 

One way around this would be setting up interns in district offices that have extra equipment, but most don’t. Another way some offices are working around this is having interns feed work to a staffer through their personal email, which they admit can be inefficient.

This has resulted in some offices reducing the number of interns they welcome from about five or six, to at most two, and in many cases none at all. 

This has also created a crunch for offices.

And as the pandemic began to peak in March, the number of constituents contacting congressional offices soared, with some offices receiving upward of 7,000 inquiries a week. Absent a pandemic, interns would typically be the ones answering calls and filling out correspondence.

“Not having them to do that hurt,” one House Democratic aide said. 

Starrs said the loss of internships hurts, in that young people will miss out on experiences that they had prepared for. He also said that he’s been “really surprised at what a good attitude most students have” given the difficulties.

Ross, who hopes to work on health policy on Capitol Hill one day, is afraid he might have missed his chance this year.  

“It is frustrating that when this all started I thought maybe this could be my chance,” he said. “Of course this is really sad, but you know, these are my interests and I thought somehow I would get work at my job or another job where I'm a part of the coronavirus response.

“Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened yet.”