2007 PFIG Recipient AJ Kornblith
College of Arts & Sciences
Political and Social Thought
2008 Graduation Year
Internship: Office of Congressman Jason Altmire in Washington, DC.
When I took a job as a summer intern on a congressional campaign in 2006, I didn’t expect much. I was working for a challenger running against an incumbent who was thought to be nearly invulnerable. I figured I would supplement the knowledge I’d acquired volunteering for other campaigns and perhaps get a good reference, but that was all. As luck would have it, things didn’t quite turn out that way. What had begun as a race not worth watching in the spring turned into a neck-and-neck battle by October, and come November my boss had pulled out an upset. Shortly after he took office, I gave a call to his chief of staff, whom I had worked with on the campaign, and asked about interning with their Washington, D.C. office. While it took a long series calls and emails to get the logistics straight, within a few weeks I had my internship. With one summer of hard work under my belt, it didn’t take much to secure a second opportunity with the same crowd. All I had to do was have the tenacity to ask.
I hope to get out of this internship a firm sense of what it’s like to work in the center of American government. Campaigns can be a lot of fun, but for my career I’d like to focus on actual policy, and Washington, D.C. is the place to be to watch that process in action, a fact especially true for Capitol Hill. The internship has less to do with learning vital skills than it does learning the character of both the work and people who perform it. I’d like to see if I’d enjoy being one of those people.
Notes on the first week
Coming out of my first week of interning at the United States Congress, I’m feeling very positive about the experience. I’m interning for the Washington, D.C. office of Representative Jason Altmire, a freshman congressman who serves Pennsylvania’s fourth congressional district. I volunteered for Altmire’s campaign last summer; now as an office intern, I have the chance to see the other side of the coin: the nuts and bolts of public policy formation.
I spent my first week learning how to balance the variety of tasks I’m expected to perform. My main job as an intern is to direct information as it comes into the office, whether by sorting mail so it goes to the right staffer, taking down the opinions of constituents who call in, or directing phone calls from other offices or organizations to the right people. On my first day I was taught how to write letters to constituents who have written or called the Congressman with opinions about an issue or piece of legislation, and soon after I was instructed how to help constituents with issues such as passport problems by phone. The number of calls and letters that comes in everyday is simply staggering. Responding to those concerns in a meaningful way requires a lot of work and a lot of careful organization.
These myriad responsibilities, however, make up only part of my overall workload. At the end of the week I was assigned to research the mining industry in our district, a project that will eventually help the legislative assistants and the Congressman decide how to handle legislation on the issue. I expect to see more of this policy work as I become more comfortable with my primary role, and I look forward to it.
After several weeks worth of work in Congress I’ve developed a better sense of the purpose the institution serves. When thinking about Congress in the abstract it’s easy to focus solely on the leadership and assume they can direct their parties to act as they please. The reality is of course far more complicated. Party loyalty plays an important role, but in my internship I’ve seen its effect strongly tempered by the need to serve our district, which is a great deal more conservative than the Democratic Party as a whole. One of my ongoing projects has been to document all the instances that the congressman has voted against the majority of Democrats. The record both helps the legislative staff keep precise track of the congressman’s record and fend off charges that Republicans have already begun to volley that he is a puppet of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. I found the results quite surprising: The congressman had voted with the Democrats less than 75% of the time and had one of the most independent records in Congress.
Further proof for this loyalty to district over party came during the Senate’s debate over the immigration bill. Through letters, emails, faxes and phone calls, our constituents of all ideological stripes sent the message loud and clear that they opposed it. And although the Democratic leadership pushed the bill hard in the Senate, the congressman made very clear to all of us in the office that he completely opposed it and would not reconsider. His priority was voting with his district. The episode helped hammer home the lesson that when it comes to party versus district, a member of Congress’s duty to their district comes first.
When you enjoy your work a lot and your coworkers even more, it’s amazing how fast eight weeks can go With my internship at Congress now behind me, I can say with confidence that the experience provided both valuable experience and lasting relationships. My goal was to get a taste of Washington, D.C. and figure out if it was an environment I would enjoy working in. What I got was a full portion that left me ready for seconds.
The internship gave me the chance to explore the day-to-day workings of practical politics. From monitoring and responding to our constituents to researching current issues for the legislative assistants to sitting in on Congressional committee hearings, I witnessed and partook in many of the diverse functions that staffers on Capitol Hill must perform. It seems that every staffer in a member of Congress’s office has a particular role to play, but that each of those roles are too big for one person. That’s where the interns come in, helping the office keep pace with the complex and often frenetic pace of events in the legislative branch. As a result, I had the chance to work in politics and policy and see how the two intertwine.
The internship also taught me the value of having a professional and good-natured staff to work with. Coming into the experience I had heard horror stories of congressional interns who were treated like dirt by their staffs, ridiculed for their mistakes and unappreciated for their (unpaid) contributions. I encountered nothing of the sort. The staffers in the office would always take the time to explain things I didn’t understand or show their appreciation for my time and effort. They were a team, and they made sure everyone in the office, including the interns, felt like they were part of the endeavor. If, or more likely when, I return to Washington, I hope to have the chance to again work with such professionals.