Tunneling under Capitol Hill: My adventure interning for Congressman Hastings


courtesy of Laurie Ward

Kelsey Ward stands in front of The Capitol building.

by Kelsey Ward, Editor

Do you think that the government doesn’t work? It is very easy to believe this with the headlines that appear in the news every day. However, I think that I might have a solution for you… become an intern in a congressional office!

I am sure that you’re thinking that you can’t be an intern for the government while still being in high school, but you can! This summer I had the opportunity to be an intern on Capitol Hill for a week.

From August 14-18, I worked in Congressman Alcee Hastings office. Hastings is a representative from Florida’s 20th district.

I have never been too interested in current events, so I was nervous going into this internship. My voice was shaky when I talked and I had butterflies in my stomach and it was intimidating walking into the Rayburn House Office Building as a soon-to-be senior. The building had tall marble pillars, long windows and two 10-foot tall statues on either side of the main entrance. 

Some people think that their senator or representatives have the power to change a problem with just the snap of their fingers. Others think that one person asking their congressmen to change something one time will make them change their mind on the issue. I learned that this isn’t exactly how it works.

Constituents write to their congressmen about a number of different topics. People could be thanking them for what they do, asking them to co-sign a bill, or urging them to vote against another bill. Many times, there would be form emails sent from different people, and most of these people came from outside of Hastings’ district.

The emails that are sent to the office are sorted into groups, called batches. The batches are assigned to different staff members based on the topic of the email. The staff member then writes a response to mail to the constituent

Like many government leaders, all the staff members deal with different topics of interest. One woman dealt with scheduling everything for Congressman Hastings and the overall flow of the office. The rest of the staff members replied to constituent letters and did research about upcoming bills. Everyone working in the office was very nice and always ready to answer any question that I had. 

Unfortunately, my internship was in August and congress was out of session, so I did not get to meet Congressman Hastings. However, I did talk to him on the phone when he called the office.

My jobs were similar to a receptionist, like Pam from The Office. Everyday, I answered phones, sorted faxes and mail, folded and stuffed letters to constituents, and filed paperwork. I also had jobs that I only did once or twice throughout the week.

I was nervous about answering the phones because I didn’t want to tell the caller the wrong information. Most of the time I would just put the caller on hold and go talk to the staffer they were trying to reach.

I was in office right after the events in Charlottesville occurred. One staff member asked me to do research for him about what Republicans said in response to the attack. I had to look on twitter and at interviews with the different members of congress and get direct quotes about what they were saying.

I attended a staff briefing, along with another intern, which was probably my favorite part of the week. Hastings’ office is in the Rayburn House Office Building, which is to the right of the Capitol building. The staff briefing was in the Russell Senate Office Building, which is on the left of the Capitol. The briefing itself was kind of boring, but getting to the briefing was the fun part!

As some of you may know, there are underground tunnels that connect all of the buildings on Capitol Hill, so that is how we got from Rayburn to Russell. The tunnels are confusing. Every way you turn looks the same, and they kind of reminded me of a dungeon. Even though there were signs telling us which way to go, we were still confused.

During our walk through the tunnels, we got to ride on the U.S. Capitol Subway System. It  is usually used to transport members of congress when they are in a hurry to go vote on a bill. Since congress wasn’t in session, we got to ride on it, which was nice because I had already done a lot of walking that week. This subway is known as the “shortest and most exclusive subway in the world.” 

The subway let us off underneath of the Capitol building. Then we took an elevator up to arrive inside of the Capitol. We walked from the House side, through The Crypt, to the Senate side. We took an elevator down and continued on our way through the tunnels.

The tunnels are supposed to be a faster way to transport between the buildings, but I think we would’ve gotten there in about the same amount of time if we just walked outside. It was really cool though, because how many other 17 year-olds can say that they’ve walked through the tunnels on Capitol Hill?

My internship was through a Girl Scout program, called the Congressional Aide Internship Program. The whole idea of the program is to get girls on Capitol Hill learning how the nation’s political process works.

I had to submit an application with a writing sample and two recommendations. I had no idea if I was going to get the internship or not, but I knew that I really wanted it. When I opened the email congratulating me on receiving the internship, you could say that I was a little more than excited.

There aren’t many Capitol Hill internships for teens, but there are many for college students. Students that intern are more likely to get a future job or career opportunity.

I highly recommend that you look for an internship with the government, even if you aren’t interested in politics. This internship opened my eyes and now I have a better understanding about what actually happens on Capitol Hill.