As an intern you will spend a lot of time on land-line phones jammed awkwardly between your shoulder and ear in a way that causes neck problems and makes you rethink making fun of people with Bluetooth headsets.
Phone courtesy is a must, “Hello Sir. My name is ___ with Congressman ___. May I ask who is calling, and how I can help you today?”
Yet beyond understanding how to properly answer the phone, and maintaining professionalism despite how many times you may want to chuckle at the guy who is telling you about area-51 and the Britney Spears Connection (“A51BC.” Google it), it is crucial that you understand how to properly use all of the functions of the phone.
First, I’d recommend learning how to check the voice mail: Not only are you being helpful to the office, but more importantly it gives you a chance to practice understanding the fast-talkers, the ramblers, and the moodiest of the moody: the callers who leave a message after the office has closed for the night.
By simply hitting “audix” on your phone you are connected with the most interesting, yet sometimes hardest to understand, voice mails you have ever heard in your life.
Many people assume that their representative—and his or her assumed robot-like staff—is always there to answer their questions. So imagine their anger when they call the tax-dollar paid for representative’s office at 11pm, and no one picks up. You can hear the annoyance in the constituent’s voice as they leave three minute message about always getting the machine.
As an intern checking the voicemail, put the caller’s name, number, town (if possible), and concern into whatever constituent call log program your office uses.
On transferring calls: Often you will receive phone calls from lobbyists and other member’s offices that are trying to reach your legislative director, scheduler, or sometimes even the chief of staff. It is important to know what office phone extension corresponds to each of your colleagues’ phones, and more importantly how to properly transfer the call without hanging up on the caller (it does happen from time to time).
The most important take away from serving as a correspondent between offices is to recognize who is calling on the other end of the line. Study up on who are the leaders in the majority and minority parties, who the committee chairmen and women of various committees are, etc…You do not want to leave Eric Cantor on hold for two minutes so you can ask the staff assistant if the chief has time to talk to a “Mr. Cantor” on line (a friend’s intern’s experience January 2012).
Ring, Ring, Ring. Its your Hill internship calling, pick-up and tell it you are ready.
Rule # 38: Offer to check the voice mail of your office—you will earn mad brownie points from your Staff Assistant
Guest post on a particularly memorable constituent:
Every day for 3 weeks she called.
She yelled, cursed, and insulted me. She accused the government of taking the debris from 9/11 and dumping it in the ocean. She told me I belonged there with it, at the bottom of the Atlantic.
I can’t describe how frustrating it was to try to explain to this woman the reality. No matter how many news articles or reports I cited of what was done with the debris, it didn’t matter. She was set in her beliefs and she vowed she would be relentless in exposing her supposed truth. Our office would take turns speaking with her but it was useless. Too many of us let her insults make us angry or let ourselves get distracted from her comments.
It wasn’t until later that I found out that the woman lost her only son in 9/11. They never found his body and she didn’t have any remains to bury.
She was sad, angry, and depressed. All of her emotions were displaced on us, which to her we were the face of the government.
That extra bit of knowledge helped remind the staff that everyone has a story. People call congressional offices for every reason under the sun, but we often times don’t know their whole story. This woman, who seemed clinically insane and in need of help, was a mourning mother who had lost everything and was trying to change something the only way she knew how.
With that, lesson learned.
Rule # 37: Before writing anyone off, know that there is a part of their story that is not being shared; something that can explain behavior but could never be understood by anyone besides those suffering from it.
How many people actually intern on Capitol Hill? When do they intern?
There is no exact number, and it’s difficult to tell for sure because interns are not usually put on Congressional websites and there is constant fluidity in the number.
Interns generally come in three waves throughout the year which follow the typical College academic cycle: Fall (September-December), Spring (January-May), and Summer (June-August).
Summer is the peak time for Hill interns as college students flock to DC. Some estimates, such as one by ABC news (http://tinyurl.com/6r37txu) put the summer total at around 10,000.
Another estimate from Politico and the Washington Center for Internships and Academic Studies puts the summer congressional internship number at 6,000.
What is the schedule like for an intern?
This depends on a few factors:
First—the season. Almost all summer interns are expected to work 40 hours per week (almost always for no pay). Fall/Spring interns might work from as few as 10-20 hours per week if they are college students, to 40 hours per week.
Second—the office. Most offices have a 20-hour/week expectation even during Fall and Spring, but not all.
Who interns on the Hill?
Just about anyone. You will find high school-aged students to people in their mid-40s. You will find people with their GED and others with a Law degree. On average, though, most people who intern on the hill are younger than 23 and either have graduated from college or are in the process of receiving a college degree.
Do interns get paid?
For almost everyone—no.
Of the 40 people I have interviewed for this blog, only three had paid internships. About a third received stipends for metro (which can cost between $4-6 every day for round trip).
Rule # 36: As the internship experience comes to a close, remember to write thank you cards on your last day to everyone that you worked with/for during the year. This would include at a minimum:
-The Chief of Staff
-The LA(s)/Staff Assistant you worked closely with
You want to hand-write these cards. It leaves them with a very favorable, and personal, impression of you.
Let’s face it—Some of us have really great, meaningful internships where we do excellent work and \acquire letters of recommendation or even a job. Some of us don’t.
For those of you who enjoy your experience, work hard, and impress your staff, CONGRATULATIONS! You have succeeded at the intern challenge.
The next step then is to make sure that you maintain those relationships. One of my friends said that because she still went to college in DC, she would go back to the office at least once a semester, and email to set up coffee dates with the people she was closest with in the office. After she graduated, the former chief of staff helped her up with a job at a lobbying firm.
Rule # 35: If you had a good internship experience, make sure that you follow-up with your office so that you do not lose connections. It is not enough to simply be Facebook friends or LinkedIn contacts—take out the people you want to stay in contact with for coffee.
This 2010 article is spot on:
On a personal note—one of my friends who works on a committee said that an older Legislative Director from a Representative’s office used to borrow different dogs when he went to committee meetings… so that he could talk to interns.
Manual Tip # 2: What not to do when answering the phone. I
- Do not engage in a debate or argument with a caller
- Do not speak for the senator regarding an issue
- Do not tell the caller how you think the senator will vote, but you can tell them if he is a cosponsor of certain legislation
- Never talk about campaign activities or fundraising to caller. Never use your government e-mail or any other government property to discuss campaigns or fundraising activities
- If you are unaware of the situation or have not been provided with talking points do not give the caller any information. Offer to take their name and contact information to the legislative policy advisor who can respond to them later.in
Manual Tip # 1: Guidebook for answering the phone
- Answer the phone in this way, “good morning/afternoon Senator ___ office. This is [name]. How may I help you?
- Obtain the following information when calls are from constituents expressing their opinion about legislation and/or issues: name; address; e-mail address; phone number; no/issue and comments. Enter this information directly into the database.
- Obtain the following information when calls are for staff: name; organization; purpose for the call.
- If the staffers is either not in the office or busy, inform the caller that the staff member is unavailable.
Guest post from a friend and former intern, Capitol Hill’s very own Fashion Expert:
Ladies. You are an intern. Not a skintern (See Monica Lewinsky; early years). When the House is in session women should dress business professional. Forever 21. Jcrew. Gap. Take your pick, there are many affordable, and classy dress options for the Hill. Generally skirts (and no, the word mini in front does not count as appropriate business attire) or dress pants and a blouse or dress shirts are appropriate. Open-toed shoes are usually fine (not sandals), and comfort for footwear is a must for an intern, as much of your day will be spent giving tours (up to an hour on your feet), or running to “the legislation shop” to drop off a bill.
When it comes to accessories, keep piercings limited to one on each ear, and always make sure to wear a watch (in the off chance your cell phone dies in the middle of a meeting you were asked to sit in on). While it may be tempting to follow the styles of your fellow full time staffers, remember that you are working for free and aren’t expected to tote that Michael Kor’s bag every female in the Longworth café flaunts. However if I were to recommend one bag to an intern looking to fit in amongst the glam-queens, AKA staff assistants on Capitol Hill, a suitcase is a must. That is, if you want to fit in with the sorority-like, female, full time staffer make sure to bring a suitcase. Notice I didn’t say be sure to pack a suitcase, because the one you will be rolling with will be empty.
As an intern you aren’t actually going to go anywhere (interpret that whatever way you -want), and neither are the suitcase-wheeling full-time staffers. As an intern you are not expected to make frequent trips to the district to provide intern assistance. That suitcase most of these Hill staffers roll around the tunnels of Cannon and Rayburn is actually for their weekend-comes-early-on-a-Wednesday trip to visit a boyfriend and his charming family in their mansion in Connecticut. By Connecticut, I mean Prince George County. It’s all about giving off the image that you are going somewhere. Somewhere with your boyfriend that is so majestical and wonderful that it’s not worth it to work a full five days a week on Capitol Hill. As an intern, though, you are here to work hard and put in the time so that hopefully you too can eventually be hired on full-time. So ladies make sure that as you roll your Gucci-weekend bag around the halls to keep your dress shirt tucked into either a blouse or dress pants, and you will fit in just fine.
Intern ‘Josh’ made a mistake his first week that ended up in his evaluation.
His senator was hosting a monthly coffee event with constituents, and he was told to go to help.
When he arrived two interns working the event told Josh that he could meet the senator (they had not met yet). So Josh introduced himself, and the senator smiled and they chatted briefly.
As nice as this might have sounded—an intern actually invited to go meet and talk with his senator—it was actually a really bad idea.
One thing we were taught in my office was that the staff should never take up a candidate’s time or attention when constituents are present. This was the candidate’s opportunity to make lasting connections and court donors, not to chat with staff and interns.
This story was in Josh’s final evaluation for showing a ‘lack of judgment’ for introducing himself.
Rule # 34: Don’t hog your member’s attention, especially when constituents are present. If your member wants to talk to you, they will.
To this point, the blog has predominantly focused on short stories and lessons to this point.
While these lessons are important—there are other, more general rules and facts about the rules of the Hill that need to be known.
Some lucky interns have the benefit of receiving a manual at the beginning of the internship. Others, like myself, did not.
Fortunately I got my hands on one of the manuals and we are going to be releasing Manual Tips as well as Rules going forward.