Last week, we submitted an open call for current and former congressional interns to tell us their stories of working on Capitol Hill. We got a lot of responses! Today, we’re publishing the first round of them.
Some of the emails we got were positive. But as many of the emails allege, lots of issues remain—among them nonpayment for work, verbal abuse from members, staff, and constituents, and nepotism. It all raises the question of who gets to work in government and not be miserable while doing it.
Don’t take it from us, though—see what they have to say for themselves. All of these stories are anonymous, for obvious reasons. They have been edited for clarity and to shield peoples’ identities.
“The Congressman was frequently cruel to his staff”
The internship in [Rep. Brad Sherman’s] office was unpaid, and each intern was required to work about 15 hours per week. The Congressman would visit the district about once every month, and so my job mostly consisted of reporting to his district staff and caseworkers, who were kind, generous, and hardworking. However, the Congressman was frequently cruel to his staff, and on more than one occasion I heard him verbally berating them. Bizarrely, the interns were also warned that making tea for the Congressman was our first priority when he was in town, and that Rep. Sherman could become angry if his tea was not freshly brewed on command.
We interns were also tasked with frequently coordinating with the office of California Assemblyman Matt Dababneh, Sherman’s former chief of staff and key ally in Sacramento. I myself worked several events alongside Dababneh and his staff throughout the course of the summer. Dababneh was later accused of sexual assault, and the accusations included incidents of workplace sexual harassment that occurred during his time as Sherman’s chief of staff. The discomfort that I felt when I realized that Dababneh had used his position within the Congressman’s office to harass and abuse women was only worsened by the horror that struck me when I realized how unlikely it was that Sherman was unaware of his chief aide’s behavior towards women within his office.
I was hesitant to email you, and I don’t wish to share my experiences in order to diminish the hard work that Sherman’s staff puts into serving members of the constituency. While I often disagreed with staffers in a number of policy areas, they always respected my input and treated me like an adult. Also, the effort that the district caseworkers put in to helping constituents navigate the complex processes of obtaining citizenship or getting access to entitlements is invaluable.
Members of Congress shield themselves from critiques of the inherently exploitative, exclusive, and abusive dynamics of unpaid internships by framing the internship as an opportunity to network and to valiantly serve your community. As long as Congressional internships remain largely unpaid, then Washington will remain a hermetically sealed bubble for wealthy undergraduates who are willing to tolerate mistreatment for the sake of career advancement and prestige. Hopefully, your journalism can help change this state of affairs.
Dababneh was accused of forcing a female lobbyist into a bathroom in 2016 and masturbating in front of her. He later resigned, and is currently suing the lobbyist for defamation. Following the revelations, Sherman denied that anyone had ever come to him or other staff with concerns about Dababneh, but told the Los Angeles Times that Dababneh’s alleged actions were “reprehensible.” He also said his office was going to implement changes where senior staffers periodically checked in with junior staffers to see if they’d experienced anything that made them uncomfortable.
Several former Sherman aides told McClatchy last December, however, that the office was toxic and that concerns wouldn’t have been taken seriously even if they’d been raised. “Congressman Sherman showed zero interest in the personal well-being of his staffers and there’s no reason to believe he would have cared or taken any action if a complaint was made,” one former staffer said. Sherman told McClatchy that it was true that he was a “demanding boss” but denied fostering an environment where concerns wouldn’t have been taken seriously.
We’ve requested comment from Sherman’s office, and will update with any response we receive.
John Boehner is an asshole to teens
I was a Congressional Page in the House of Representatives. If you are not familiar, the Page Program was essentially a younger-paid internship program that was cut a few years ago. We were sponsored by our local congress member, but we essentially work for the party of your sponsoring member. This meant I spent most of my days around the House floor and the smoke-filled office of John Boehner. We went to school in the mornings, starting around 6 a.m, and then reported to the House floor around 9 a.m. This meant that we never really had time to put much effort into our appearance. We also had to wear a uniform, so most of us didn’t care too much.
One day, one of my fellow pages wore her hair in a ponytail and John Boehner walks by, stops her, and says, “You know what a ponytail says to me? Sloppy.” The poor girl burst into tears as John Boehner was some of what an idol to her. Pretty damaging to a 16-year-old.
(In 2011, the House shut down its page program. We’ve requested comment from Boehner on this, and will update with any response we receive.)
Reality check at a lobbying group
I interned for a lobbing group during Obama’s second term in DC when I was a junior in university.
My first time meeting a congressman we were trying to get them to visit a local company headquarters in their own districts in a major NE state. Being an intern meant I introduced myself and then pretty much just sat through meetings. This meeting, my first, I found out I had a hard time just sitting there as Congressman told us their plans that were the complete opposite of what they said they were doing.
Somehow Net Neutrality was brought up. My company was for it, the Representative we were with said he was for it too. However his version of Net Neutrality would consist of there being two lanes of speed, a fast one you could pay more for and a normal one. This is exactly the opposite of Net Neutrality. I sat through the whole meeting and then follow up at the Republican Club wanting to point out the BS. I never did and many more of these occurrences would happen that summer. I learned that I couldn’t sell my soul for money even if it could open up so many doors.
About calling your local representative...
I interned for Rep. Tim Ryan. Youngstown area of Ohio.
This was in the DC office, Longworth Building. Unpaid.
Working for him was very tedious. The most common tasks I did for him were folding form letters a thousand times into an envelope, distributing newspapers around the office, and answering a lot of constituent calls: some nice, some very angry.
As interns, we were told to tell every constituent calling in that “I will pass on your message to the Congressman.” In reality, we never did. Literally, just lied to them, hung up on the phone, went on with our day. That’s never sat right with me. That’s such an important avenue to interact with your representative. I don’t know if the office still does this.
The worst part, I think, were my fellow staff. Not only was I unpaid, doing awful chores, but there was zero effort to encourage me to attend outside events, network, help me job event (they knew I was looking), or at all recognize that I was a smart human with potential. I definitely could have done more work on my own, but it was my first time living in DC, away from familiar things, less than 21 years old, UNPAID, and definitely could have used at least a mentor. Nada.
Having an intern badge gets you access all over the Capitol, Senate and House buildings. Cool part was passing people you only knew from CNN. Taking the train in between the House and Senate buildings. Answering the phone and having your Senator on the line. And giving tours! Could be tedious at times, but we were trained on the history of the US Capitol Building, and routinely walked visiting constituents around. And anyone can do this! Before you come to DC, call you rep and get a tour! Totally worth it. I walked Tim’s basketball coach around one time, which was really awesome, and at the end he gave me a $20. Awesome.
Tim was awesome, when I saw him. He made an effort to learn everyone’s names and seemed to have great camaraderie in the office.
(We requested comment from Ryan about how constituent requests were handled, and will update with any response we receive.)
Verbal abuse from constituents at a Democratic member’s office
Every work day, I would copy and paste hundreds of response emails for constituents, answer the phone, and give tours of the Capitol. Sometimes, phone calls would be threatening towards me. I was once told to “get gang raped by a pack of n******.” All for no pay and no college credit.
Interning on the Hill is basically required to get any sort of political paid internship or entry level job in DC. One intern in my office was 25 with a Masters in public health, and an unpaid internship was all she could find. Unpaid internships are fundamentally unfair and a huge part of DC college culture. Thanks for doing this piece!
“Nothing says DC more than being a 20-something fuckhead and having to sit in the middle of the Mall in a suit and tie for four hours so you have a spot to play softball.”
I worked for Senator Bob Casey. I was unpaid, and worked in the press office. I was far better off than the 20 or so interns in the mail room who sorted incoming mail and generally fucked off the whole time.
Working in the press shop was far better than being a general intern, as I mentioned, but the worst thing I ever had to do was sit out on the National Mall starting at 1 p.m. so we could reserve a spot for our softball game that afternoon. Nothing says DC more than being a 20-something fuckhead and having to sit in the middle of the Mall in a suit and tie for four hours so you have a spot to play softball. You can’t sit on the benches on the side, otherwise you lose your spot! The kicker: I wasn’t allowed to play for my “boss” even after I spent the whole day running up a dry cleaning bill. Staff got to play, the Senator showed up for 5 minutes to hold a bat, and that was it. Icing on the cake has to be writing my own recommendation letter for my boss to sign - she sat next to me for 4 months but couldn’t be bothered to say anything positive about me.
Congressman loved his Granny Smiths
I was an intern for a (now former) Dem member. His chief of staff tasked me with running around the three house office buildings to find a green apple for the Congressman. When I returned without one, the Congressman proceeded to yell at me for my failure.
Steny Hoyer’s friends’ kids get the good stuff
I had an unpaid internship with [Democratic] Rep. Steny Hoyer. Luckily, it was just two days a week and I already lived in the DC area, which made the two-month long internship more feasible. Since Hoyer is the House Minority Whip, he had two offices. The office I interned out of was the smaller of the two, and Hoyer never stepped foot in it. The main focus of our job was giving occasional tours to special constituents and answering phone calls from racists, conspiracy theorists, and elderly shut-ins who watch C-SPAN all day.
One time, I spoke with a woman who spent 30 or so minutes encouraging me to read the book God Is For Real and trying to convert me to Christianity (I have gay voice, which might have made her extra concerned about my prospects in the afterlife).
It was definitely a “seeing how the meat is made” experience for this former political science student. In addition to being confronted with the grosser positions of the person you’re interning for (such as Hoyer’s cozy relationship with AIPAC), you’re also surrounded by a number of SGA dweebs high on their own supply. We found out at the end of the internship that the other office was packed with interns who were almost all children of Hoyer’s top donors and friends. The interns in the separate office frequently got to write memos and do other more substantive work. However, answering the phones was probably more entertaining.
Just wanted to share my own experience because it hasn’t really been of any use otherwise. Most of my friends don’t even know about this internship because it’s slightly embarrassing.
Got a congressional intern horror story? Send it to me at paul.blest at splinternews dot com, or tips at splinternews dot com.