A Cynic in Washington: Reflections on a Senate Internship

Sam White, Contributing Writer

Winter Term, as every Obie should know, is a unique and invaluable opportunity that knows very few bounds. Last year, as a freshman, I was fortunate to have the chance to travel outside the Western Hemisphere for the first time in my life and work as a farmhand in rural Thailand. This year, I stayed closer to home but completed an internship that nonetheless immersed me in a thoroughly different culture: the United States Senate.

The stark disconnect between American politicians and their constituents is no secret. I began my adventure in Washington facing facts. At the beginning of January, roughly 13 percent of Americans approved of the way Congress was performing, and I was not among them. The reality that I will probably declare a Politics major in the next few weeks cannot hide the fact that I deeply resent many aspects of American politics, and after spending a month observing the system from within, I haven’t changed much in this respect. Government in its ideal form, I believe, centers around public service. Politics, as practiced on Capitol Hill, is steeped in egotistic careerism at the expense of both governance and service. The disjunction is overwhelming.

The sad reality, though, is that what happens — or doesn’t happen — in Washington affects everyone in America, no matter how distanced or out-of-touch our politicians may be. As much as I want nothing to do with politics as we know it, the majority of the issues I care and write about are inherently dependent on politics and policy. Knowing this, I ventured to the District of Columbia with two main goals. First, to get closer to working out what I want to do with my life; and second, to try to learn the language of government, since I will probably find it relevant to whatever I end up doing.

I managed to secure an internship in the office of Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts, who was elected to the Senate in a special election after John Kerry was appointed as Secretary of State. One of my first realizations once inside the Russell Senate Office Building, I have to admit, was the simple observation that a huge quantity of work does in fact get done on Capitol Hill — and meaningful, substantive work at that. The interns who answer hundreds of calls from constituents each week are not pretending to listen (at least in Senator Markey’s office); they are actively working to make sure that senators hear their constituents’ concerns, as well as helping constituents get the information they need to decide whether the senator is adequately addressing them. Teams of roughly 20-30 staffers in each office research policy issues, consult experts, meet with constituents and organizations, collaborate with other Senate and House offices, sort through correspondence, and do whatever else is necessary to allow the senator to focus on the most important task: crafting and passing legislation informed by these staffers’ work.

This last level, I imagine, is where everything breaks down if a senator is out of touch. I was lucky enough to witness the process at its best, and was thrilled to see Senator Markey take important issues — issues I had worked on with his staffers — to the committee floor. In one memorable instance, at a publicly recorded hearing on domestic drone use with the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Markey raised several crucial questions regarding privacy concerns. Putting the previous 90 minutes of slow-moving discussion to shame, he drove home a well-articulated argument for his own unrivaled legislation on drone regulation, all while gesticulating passionately with an iPhone-controlled, camera-equipped quad-copter that he had brought to the hearing to demonstrate the technology’s market availability. Sadly, it became clear that Markey — and all his hard work — was the anomaly in the room; by contrast, Committee Chair Jon D. Rockefeller of West Virginia seemed reluctant to even listen.

At least in its current and disproportionately rich, white, old and male membership, Congress is clearly dysfunctional, reflected in its abysmal approval ratings (which dropped one percent further during my time there). However, I now realize that this isn’t entirely for lack of trying, as evidenced by the painstaking efforts of the staffers with whom I worked, and by the occasional well-meaning, talented senator, like Ed Markey. My experience did little to improve my outlook on American politics, but it did at least increase my understanding of and appreciation for some of the hard work necessary to translate constituent concerns into meaningful government action. Our political system is not necessarily broken, but Congress will only repair itself and regain the trust of the American people when its members, too, appreciate the need for this work.