Former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson (not a congressman) speaking to a group of congressional interns.
Photo: Getty

Last month, we published a collection of stories former congressional interns sent us about their (mostly unpaid) time working for some of the most powerful in the country. Stories included John Boehner saying making a 16-year old House page cry, a congressman allegedly abusing his staff, and staff using interns to reserve their softball fields.

Today, we’re publishing some more of these stories in honor of the new Congress. As always, names have been redacted and the stories lightly edited in order to protect the identity of the sender. Let’s hope this new crop of freshman lawmakers—at the very least—pay their interns and aren’t giant assholes to them.

Advertisement

Doing staff work for none of the pay

I was a full time intern for Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA-11). I was not paid and worked 40+ hours a week, typically 9 am-5 pm when we were out of session and 9 am-6 pm when we were in session. Because my supervisor was transitioning from her role as staff assistant/LC to scheduler and they had not yet hired a new SA, I ended up absorbing a lot of the functions of the assistant job (as did the other interns, although I found that I was consistently given more responsibility since I was in the office every day and worked efficiently). They hired a new assistant partway through my internship, a position I wasn’t eligible for because I had left school before completing my BA. On my last day at the office, the chief of staff made a joke about having nobody to take over training the new SA once I left.

Financially, I had it better than most. I stayed rent-free with my mom, who lives in northern Virginia, so my costs were limited to commuting and food. I probably wouldn’t have pursued the internship otherwise. Connolly and his staff were friendly, the work environment was mostly good, and unlike a lot of interns, I was given some substantive tasks that I found instructive. That being said, I never shook the feeling that I was being milked for whatever I was willing to offer them free of charge. When people now ask me about congressional internships, I advise them against it.

Advertisement

We’ve reached out to Connolly’s office to see if they’re now paying their interns, and will update with any comment we receive.

“I was only able to do this because I had rich parents”

I was an intern at a local office for a Senator (and House member due to a special election). During that summer I helped setup the office of the House member, staff the Senator and House member when either was in state, answer phone calls, do press clippings, etc. I was paid minimum wage and it was great other than the senator losing his re-election bid.
I then interned in DC for the House member when I was 20. Again paid minimum wage but got shit blasted drunk in the Capitol building multiple times. I mostly gave Capitol tours to tourists, ran errands, and ate the best grilled cheese of my life at the old Capitol cafeteria. It was excellent.
I was only able to do this because I had rich parents that paid most of the rent. Anyone working for a congress member should be paid so more people can do it, not only those well off like I was.

Advertisement

“You’re at the mercy of careless people judging you with capricious whims”

My first internship, I was so proud to be there. I had tried to get a Hill entry level job, a year out of college, but nobody was hiring me. I got an unpaid internship with my home state Senator. I was working at a restaurant 5 shifts per week (two doubles, one on weekends) when I wasn’t interning.

It was a good internship. It gave me familiarity and access. But staff who hadn’t interned themselves were way more dismissive to interns. It was usually something you could brush off. But then one day, a staffer asked me if people “were smart from this town.” I didn’t know what he meant. I realized he was looking at a resume for a potential future intern.... and he wanted to know if people were generally “smart” from that town.

It was so ridiculous. You come to the Hill trying to learn and help. And even when you try to work hard, you’re at the mercy of careless people judging you with capricious whims.

But hey, at least the staffers have free labor to reserve their softball fields. Focus on what’s important, right?

Advertisement

Yikes, John Boehner

John Boehner was speaking to a group of a few hundred interns. I think he was speaker at the time so this was one of the big events that summer. I remember that he explicitly asked the interns to turn off their phones; I guess he knew he was going to put his foot in his mouth at some point.

He had told us his familiar story: how he grew up as a poor nobody but with hard work he rose to a position of extreme importance. At the end of his talk, he opened up the floor to questions. I raised my hand; and he pointed in my direction! He said, “you, with the Boehner tan, go ahead.” I’m of middle eastern descent so my tan gets pretty intense during the summer; I assumed he was talking to me. Yet the crowd of interns seemed to express a great deal of concern, and they were not looking at me. I saw all eyes focused on an intern ahead of me by about ten seats. I moved to the edge of my seat to see what the commotion was about, and it was dreadful: John Boehner addressed a black intern as “you with the Boehner tan.”

Advertisement

We requested comment from Boehner in December, and have not yet received a response. We will update if we get one.

“It wasn’t unusual to be made to feel like a joke”

I was an unpaid intern in the office of a U.S. Representative during the recession. A lot of my peers were interning for free while working service industry jobs. I was expected to work about 40 hours per week, on top of a retail job I had elsewhere. I also was asked to work longer hours during the Affordable Care Act chaos and was asked to come in to work when the government was closed during a giant snow storm. I did, because I know that’s how you end up with good recommendations and permanent jobs, and a free internship was better than nothing during the recession.

I remember feeling insulted on an occasion when I went with the Representative to meet with some local business people from the district. They asked about his children, and he made a point of telling everyone that his child had a paid internship in the home state’s statehouse. He said he wouldn’t let his kids work for free. During the five months of the internship, there were consistently 2-3 other interns in the office along with six full time staff, so he certainly benefited from the free labor even if it was too good for his own children. It’s a job that comes with a fair amount of condescension and occasional harassment from the paid staffers on the hill (rightly or wrongly), so it wasn’t unusual to be made to feel like a joke.

Advertisement

“My unpaid internship experiences...made my day to day life extremely difficult”

My university had a “study abroad” program in DC where you spent a semester in DC doing an unpaid 30 hour a week internship and took classes in the evening. I worked in a Democratic Congressman’s office Monday-Thursday from 8:30-5:00. I technically got college credit for this internship (4 credits) but in every other semester in college, I worked side jobs in order to pay for my expenses but I could not do that in DC as I was working from 8:30-5 every day then had class from 6-9 every night. On Fridays, we had mandatory outings with our program so I also couldn’t work on Fridays and I needed my weekends to do schoolwork. As a result, I could barely afford food and my transportation to and from the Capitol every day.

My final semester in college I interned in a Democratic Senator’s office in their constituency office. This one was not connected to my university so I did not receive college credit for it. I did 2 full days a week, so about 15 hours a week.

People tend to write off unpaid internships undertaken during a college course as “work experience” and thus act as if it is okay. However, my unpaid internship experiences, while very useful, made my day to day life extremely difficult. I could only do unpaid internships during the school year as I had to go home and work in the summers so I was always juggling work, school, and my internship.

Advertisement

“Guilted into buying the office a new microwave”

I was an unpaid intern in D.C. for [former Montana Sen.] Max Baucus.

I slept on the floor of my first apartment for about 3 months until I got enough money to buy a Craigslist mattress after winning the office March Madness pool. I also got guilted into buying the office a new microwave because the current one had been destroyed by someone’s leftover fish/general lack of cleaning.

After that spring semester (most interns are in college or recent grads) the office adopted a policy to pay any intern who had a college degree. I think the Finance Committee had already been doing that. They noticed they had an easy time getting interns from Montana in the school year but it was much harder in the summer because people back home couldn’t afford it. Even the well off parents preferred to let tuition subsidize rent and living expenses.

Interning is the best way for someone who is not connected to get an entry level job, which is the best way to then get a mid-level job, etc.... Georgetown and [George Washington University] and the other D.C. schools are basically intern warehouses. Other notable schools have programs where they help with housing and maybe offer college courses to put tuition money to work. Prep schools like Exeter and Andover get their kids in offices over the summer.

All this greatly affects who works in Congress, who’s around Members, and thus the type of things they hear all day. Normal, middle class people, like myself, can get their foot in the door if they know what to do (I barely did). Staying there long enough to get a job requires some savings and then being frugal (and taking advantage of the free food at trade groups’ annual receptions).

Advertisement

“It feels a bit hypocritical that even the most progressive members of Congress don’t find a way to offer paid internships”

I was a DC intern in a House office for a member who was part of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. I was unpaid. I am lucky and have a family that was able to support me and pay for rent and food in DC for the nearly 4 months that I was an intern, in addition to being able to escape having college loan debt. While I understood the constraints put on members because of the limited budgets they have to work with, it still feels a bit hypocritical that even the most progressive members of Congress don’t find a way to offer paid internships. I met some other interns who, while they were criminally underpaid, at least got paid a stipend which allowed them to receive benefits that are offered to paid staff including compensation for costs of commuting.

As an intern, I had to answer phones. While the Staff Assistant and Scheduler sometimes took phone calls (and would take repeat calls from particularly nasty callers), us interns were the people who would be answering the phones the bulk of the time. During my months in the office I heard callers drop all sorts of racial, religious, homophobic, etc. slurs and stereotypes. I was regularly on the receiving end of anger that callers had (often rightfully, and often in a way I completely agreed with) and had to respond politely knowing all the while that I wasn’t getting paid for doing this.

As an intern I was treated like less than a staff member. The Staff Assistant would often get invites to different events and banquets, ones that would often be open to interns. He rarely passed those invites along to me and most event invites I got were from other interns. In fact, the Staff Assistant was so bad at helping interns get the lay of the land that it took me weeks longer than it should have to find events and begin to network with people outside of the office I was in who could provide career advice.

Lastly, I was an intern during the slate of scandals and resignations due to sexual assault allegations. During that time, I learned how much more vulnerable interns are to sexual assault or harassment than staff are (and they are already profoundly vulnerable). Luckily I didn’t personally encounter anything of the sort, but I know how tough of a situation I would have been in if I had.

Advertisement

“I had nightmares constantly for the months after I left”

I can vouch everything from the previous intern story re: Brad Sherman, particularly the tea, is absolutely true. In the DC office, sometimes we would have to run down a fresh cup to him between hearings, meetings, and votes. That coffee maker got DISGUSTING (mold and bacteria, you name it) and the interns would have to clean it out, as the staff refused to. He was godawful to his primary staff and would berate them constantly, holding 1-2 long hour meetings at the start of each week (sometimes after first votes which would keep the staff until 9pm) where he would often just yell at people.

This may probably date me, but my favorite were the tapes. The guy carried around a microtape recorder and would tape HOURS worth of memos to the staff each day, despite having a Blackberry. Really inane stuff too, very light on substance. Mostly his schedule or yelling at someone for screwing something up. One senior staffer had to drive me to his DC residence because he had a tape for pick up. I went to the door to get it and [Sherman] proceeded to chew me out for a good 5 min. for NOT bringing an extra tape for him (mind you he never requested it nor did the staff mention he needed it). I did have to go back to the office, get a new tape, and bring it back to him.

The interns would have to transcribe the tape memos into word docs and then email the relevant ones to the staff. There were usually 2-3 of us working on this at any given time, 2-4 tapes and hours of memos. However, we were still not getting it done quickly enough for his taste and he put it back on the poor admin staff to do, so we just sat around with nothing to do for hours most days.
I was supplementing this job with extra work hours elsewhere (non-Hill related to avoid conflicts of interest) and was just so miserable. I had nightmares constantly for the months after I left.

Advertisement

We reached out to Sherman’s office, and will update when and if we receive a response.

“Interning there changed my mind about a career in politics”

I interned in one of the state field offices for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of NY when I was in college. There were two paid staffers (one senior, one junior), and an army of unpaid interns.

Most of the interns were “well-connected.” We were a field office, so it wasn’t like Malia Obama was working there. More like kids of local county/town reps. I had to file intern resumes, and I saw that the junior staffer made special notations for kids who were “well connected” (again, using that term loosely. “My mom is a legislator in the county of Bumblefuck,” stuff like that). It really annoyed me, because in politics having an internship with a Senator is a big resume builder, but only rich/well-connected kids can afford to work an unpaid job like that.

Interning there changed my mind about a career in politics. Most of the other interns were either spoiled rich kids who sat on their cell phones all day, or LITERALLY college-aged Jonahs from Veep. Such smarmy, ass-kissing little dicks who bragged about the scores they got on their LSAT PRACTICE TESTS. I noped the fuck out of working in that environment after that summer.

We DID actually pass on comments to the Senator. We’d take every constituent call (humble brag: I was one of the “better” interns so I got the shitty task of answering the phones, cause they could trust me not to fuck it up). We put the issue and a short comment into a huge Excel spreadsheet which would then get sent to the DC team at the end of the week. So, if 1000 people had called up to say they disagreed with X bill, the team would compile all the issues and yeses/nos from the whole week and the Senator could see where constituents stood on a macro level. Some people would call and be like, “Senator Gillibrand should read this book I just read about greenhouse gases!” and to be honest, niche comments like that probbbbbably didn’t make it all the way to the Senator.

It was definitely a real job, if you worked hard at it. Super mundane, super boring busywork, but it was the type of low-level grunt work that SOMEONE had to do and it fell to the interns. That being said, we should’ve gotten paid at least like $10/hour or something. Those of us who actually gave a shit did most of the same things the junior staff member did, but for free.

People are dicks. We had a few crazy callers who were blacklisted because they’d call up and go on racist/abusive rants. The letters - oh, the letters! We read every piece of mail that came in the office. Note: if some bomber sends Anthrax or something in the mail, the Senator won’t touch it, you moron! Some 20 year old unpaid intern will!

My neighbors down the street sent a letter calling the Senator a cunt - bet they didn’t know that the nice neighbor was opening the mail in her field office and knew who they were. All letters would get forwarded from us to the DC office. They’d register the yeses/nos on issues, then file the letters and send a form thank you.

Senators’ offices actually do perform helpful work/constituent services. We had people contact us for asylum cases, etc; anything within a Senator’s jurisdiction, we would pass along to someone in our office who could help. That being said, people called with all sorts of craaaazy shit and we’d have to kindly tell them the Senator had no jurisdiction over their neighborhood Christmas decorations (hyperbole, but not far off).

I met the Senator once, and she was super nice and friendly and made sure to take photos with all of the interns. The senior staffer was a baller - no-nonsense, smart, but not an asshole. The junior staffer was a total jerk and made me cry on my first day, but to be fair she was like 25 and probably supppper overwhelmed at a very stressful and low-paid job.

Advertisement

As of a Mic report from last year, Gillibrand had not yet begun to pay her interns. We’ve reached out to her office to see if that’s changed and will update with any response we receive.

If you’re a current or former congressional staffer who has horror stories of your own, we’d love to hear them. Email Libby Watson (libby.watson@splintenews.com), DM her on Twitter (@libbycwatson), or reach out to her via SecureDrop. Anonymity is guaranteed.