This summer, a number of University students hailing from all parts of the country traveled to Washington, D.C. to intern on Capitol Hill for their congressional representatives, taking part in a time-honored tradition that local Washington, D.C. residents jokingly call the annual “summer ‘hilltern’ migration.”
Unsurprisingly, the University “hilltern” delegation mostly worked for members of the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives rather than in the Senate “graveyard,” referring to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s unwillingness to bring any legislation with even an iota of Democratic support up for a vote. Whether students are government majors or just interested in public policy, the opportunity to intern on the Hill gave them a chance to build their résumés and see whether they want to go into government after graduating.
“I’ve always been into politics and I’ve seen the impact it has on people’s lives,” said Jesse Levy-Rubinett ’20, who worked for freshman Democrat Colin Allred from Texas’ 32nd district. “I’ve participated in politics, if it’s making calls, canvassing, or just paying attention to it, but I didn’t really understand how it actually works and how it works behind the scenes, and if it’s something worth investing your time into and if you see the end results of your work.”
Irrespective of office, interns did similar work, from answering phones to writing constituent letters and researching upcoming legislation, all offering a window into the inner workings of our government’s legislative process. Tyler Lederer-Plaskett ’21, who worked for New York Rep. Elliot Engel, notes that he was able to work on research for some new pieces of legislation that his representative plans to introduce on the house floor.
“I was doing a lot of email coding, a lot of answering calls, but also towards the end of the summer I got to work on some legislation, like just some research stuff which was pretty cool and kind of gave me something to talk about on a résumé,” said Lederer-Plaskett.
Though the intern work within different offices can be fairly homogenous, the work environment varied drastically based on if the representatives were veterans or newcomers to the Hill. While some interns worked for veteran members of the House—including Lederer-Plaskett, who worked in the office of a 35-year veteran of Congress—others worked for freshman representatives who helped Democrats flip the house in the 2018 midterms. For Sophie Elwood ’20, who interned for a newly elected Democrat from her home state of Minnesota, the experience of working in a freshman office had the upbeat, idealistic atmosphere of a start-up.
“It was definitely a more flexible environment and felt like you could really make a difference,” she said. “I think I was more optimistic about government coming out of the internship—it made me more appreciative of how much there is to be done, but also if you get the right people into the right places, the work is feasible.”
Lederer-Plaskett, on the other hand, finished the summer with a more hardened, cynical outlook on the inner workings of Congress. Seeing the daily flow of lobbyists into his office, and relentless focus on re-election campaigns, made him disillusioned with the capability of government to fight for change.
“I just knew that I had all these really passionate, really smart staffers, legislative assistants, who are working day in and day out on meeting with lobbyists, meeting with people trying to push legislation through the house, and then I’m just looking at myself like: This isn’t going anywhere,” Lederer-Plaskett said. “This isn’t actually getting passed, with the Republican-controlled Senate, the government is built against you right now. Day in and day out, to go in, and just constantly know that you would not reap benefits for the work you were doing. I’m definitely glad that I took the job, and even though there were ups and downs, it was definitely a valuable experience. But I know that I probably will not be heading back there.”
While Levy-Rubinett also interned for a freshman Democrat, he fell somewhere in between the cynical and optimistic outlooks that most University hillterns finished the summer with. For Levy-Rubinett, the internship on the Hill gave him a pragmatic sense about limitations of the federal government and what structural issues should be tackled on the state level instead.
“I didn’t get more optimistic,” said Levy-Rubinett. “Your gut reaction being in that place is cynical, but I don’t really think you have to take it that way—it’s more that you realize how things work. I feel like today and in our current age, it’s easy to think about these big ideas that you want to happen and it’s really big things, which I think is important because those things need to happen, but it just makes you more aware of the current situation of reality and where things are, and the long process that it looks like to get things done at the federal level. With that being said, it can happen at very different speeds at different state levels.”
As the University hillterns pointed out, the political approach of elected officials in Washington, D.C. can differ quite starkly from the more activism-oriented perspective that many young people on left-leaning campuses such as the University hold. Rather than calling to attention the large structural issues that need addressing, as activists are wont to do, legislators also have to deal with bread-and-butter issues in their district, such as infrastructure, or school funding. While this predicament was unanimously recognized by University hillterns, these students had very different reactions to these contrasting styles of politicking.
“Both the activist and the politician are important,” said Levy-Rubinett. “Both sides, whether it’s governing or activist side, are gonna do what they do, and I’m not gonna sit here and say activists shouldn’t do what they do and the same for elected officials. But activists’ whole point is to call attention to things that aren’t being taken care of and that’s the nature of the situation; the reality is is that when elected officials are in office, they can’t always do what activists want because their causes just won’t always happen or reach results in our current system.”
In working for a more moderate Democrat who flipped a red seat in Texas, Levy-Rubinett felt that while he might not always agree personally with some of his representative’s votes, Allred still championed progressive legislation and was far better than the alternative. Levy-Rubinett understood that the omnipotent political pressures of reelection required Allred to be conscious of what kinds of issues his republican opponent would be attacking him on.
“Coming from the progressive Wesleyan perspective you’d be like, ‘Oh God, this guy [Allred] isn’t doing anything good and needs to speak out on all these issues,’” said Levy-Rubinett. “But when you really look at it, he’s governing a large group of people who have a lot of different opinions on things, and he flipped the district from red to blue, so he can’t really go out and talk about certain issues or we’ll just go back to someone worse.”
However, Lederer-Plaskett came away more frustrated by Washington, D.C. political tactics, which he doesn’t see as adequate to respond to the big issues facing our time.
“The argument is that Democrats in swing states can’t be as radical or else they’ll lose re-election and then we’ll lose seats in the house,” said Lederer-Plaskett. “And, yes, we need to play the game in Washington, D.C., but I don’t think it’s necessarily more effective or better. It’s frustrating because I just look at a system, I’m looking at a system that seems completely ineffective and inefficient…. But that’s how it’s supposed to be, change is supposed to be very gradual and slow for it to work through our government, which just does not seem well fit for the time that we’re in as far as climate change, the refugee crisis at the border.”
Lederer-Plaskett saw a parallel between the political tensions in disparate spaces like the University and Washington, D.C. as similar to the divide between Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and “the Squad,” a group of young congresswomen that were elected to the House after the last election, which ignited intra-party fighting this summer.
“That’s the whole argument between Pelosi and AOC [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez], old Democrats versus new Democrats coming in and saying we want to change everything right now, and I say why not?” said Lederer-Plaskett. “I had an argument with one of my interns who didn’t think that free college was a realistic thing for college students, and then I’m here saying, ‘why not?’ Why can’t that be a possibility? Why can’t we talk about the potential to have free college education for everyone, or loan forgiveness? It’s just a small percentage of more radical Democrats that believe and advocate for these more radical policies. Being called a socialist on the Hill is about the worst thing that could happen to you, except for the people that are proud Democratic Socialists, but all Democrats want to say that they’re proud capitalists, and different things like that. If you’re at Wesleyan, [you’d] be in the minority, or at least 50/50. I think that our political system isn’t really working at the moment, and it’s definitely worth it to try a more aggressive approach.”
Elwood, on the other hand, was able to straddle both approaches to politics by interning on the Hill while also getting involved with direct action initiatives in the local Washington, D.C. area such as the Never Again march on the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) headquarters.
“Both sides—the activist and government side—are both important to pushing forward structural change,” Elwood explained. “It did make me more sympathetic to when large bodies like the U.S. Congress can’t address every concern of an activist group and organizers, but it also showed me that there really is power in direct action.”
Luke Goldstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.