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News / Politics

As summer interns descend on the Hill, this resource office is ready

By Justin Papp, CQ-Roll Call
Published: June 1, 2024, 5:31am

WASHINGTON — Being a congressional intern can feel like drinking out of a fire hose, or at least it did to Maggie Mahfood-Bradley when she arrived on the Hill in 2016.

Her boss’ staff had competing priorities, and getting interns oriented wasn’t always near the top of the list, said Mahfood-Bradley, who is now director of special projects under the House Office of the Chief Administrative Officer.

“It’s really trying to learn and not feel that I’m being burdensome to the staff that I’m working with,” she said in a recent interview. “It’s kind of a balance. … And it was overwhelming at the time.”

Her experience was not unique. Life as a Hill intern is hit or miss. Pay is bad — and some still aren’t paid at all. Internships vary considerably from one office to the next, and while they might look good on a resume, professional development is hardly guaranteed.

Meanwhile intern coordinators — the often entry-level staffers tasked with managing office interns — tend to be overworked, and they don’t stay in the role long.

“Intern coordinators are just so busy,” said Bisher Martini, also a former House intern. “They’re getting on-boarded and before you know it, they’re already LCs [legislative correspondents] and press assistants and whatnot.”

But Martini and Mahfood-Bradley are setting out to address these and other long-standing problems. They’re leading a new House office — housed within the CAO — aimed at improving the intern experience. Martini was hired this year as the House Intern Resource Office coordinator, and Mahfood-Bradley is helping to oversee operations.

“We’re really emphasizing best practices. We really just want to understand what works and what can help us support interns,” Martini said.

According to Martini, the office has more than 20 professional development events planned for the summer on a range of topics, from how to make sense of legislative procedure to how to answer the phone. A regular newsletter called “The Intern Connection” blasts out support resources. They’ll also be conducting outreach to intern coordinators.

“It’s really a big goal of ours to kind of build relationships not just with the interns, but with the offices as well,” Martini said.

The House office is getting off the ground just as Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Karen Gibson asked for funding to launch a similar initiative. In testimony at a budget hearing last week, Gibson said she’d hire two full-time employees to staff an office that would offer support and standardized programming to Senate interns. It’s not clear whether that funding will be included in the Senate version of the Legislative Branch appropriations bill, a draft of which has not been released.

“For generations, interns have often faced challenges around fair compensation, structured mentorship programs, and access to professional development opportunities,” Taylor Swift, director of government capacity at POPVOX Foundation, said in an email. “The House is choosing to invest in its internship workforce to help address many of these issues head-on.”

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The idea for the Intern Resource Office sprang out of the Select Committee on Modernization, or ModCom, which was led by Rep. Derek Kilmer until it disbanded at the end of the 117th Congress. One of the committee’s more than 200 recommendations in its final report was for a House intern and fellowship office “that helps with onboarding, developing educational curriculum, professional development, and training for office coordinators.”

‘More valuable lessons’

Kilmer was himself a House intern in the early 1990s in the office of the late Rep. Al Swift, and the experience was enlightening, though not necessarily for the right reasons. The Washington Democrat said he spent a lot of time opening and sorting mail.

“On one hand, I was bright-eyed and just happy to be in the building,” Kilmer said. “And on the other hand, it wasn’t the most robust experience from an educational and professional development standpoint.”

He didn’t have much interaction with the congressman until the last day of his assignment, when Swift invited Kilmer to his office.

“He said, ‘I’m now going to teach you the most important lesson of this internship. This is a lesson that people in this town would kill to learn and I’m going to teach it to you,’” Kilmer recalled. Swift then reached into his desk and pulled out a cigar, which he taught Kilmer how to light and smoke.

“I think as an institution now, we should aspire to perhaps more valuable lessons,” Kilmer laughed.

Kilmer — now ranking member of the House Administration Modernization Subcommittee, which is tasked primarily with implementing ModCom recommendations — said the select committee took up the internship issue in part because it found intern experiences varied greatly from one office to another. Some were “meaty” and full of meaningful opportunities to learn and engage in professional development. Others were filled with drudgery and menial tasks.

“Part of the idea of establishing a House intern resource office is to ensure that all interns receive consistent onboarding. That they’re set up for success. That they’re able to acclimate quickly to the demands on the Hill and in their offices,” Kilmer said. “And that we’re providing the support and the resources to make sure that intern opportunities are available to folks from diverse backgrounds, so that we have a Congress and a congressional staff that looks like America.”

Hill internships have traditionally catered to a mostly white, mostly wealthy group of young adults, who can afford to forgo pay for a semester to boost their resume. It wasn’t until 2018 that Congress passed legislation allocating funds to pay House and Senate interns in member offices. And the House only set aside funds to pay committee interns in 2021. The Senate still doesn’t allocate funds for committee interns, despite repeated attempts led by Hawaii Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz.

“To ensure we are able to hire the most qualified workers, we must enable all individuals to have the financial freedom to serve as interns without undue hardship,” Schatz wrote in a letter earlier this month to Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Deb Fischer, R-Neb., who lead the Senate Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee.

Paying interns is a step toward increasing diversity, advocates argue, though a study published by the nonprofit Pay Our Interns found that in 2019, most of those paid internships ended up going to white students. The group recommended more intentional efforts to recruit diverse candidates.

And Mahfood-Bradley and Martini see an opportunity to address diversity, in part by partnering with staff who moved over to the CAO when the House Office of Diversity and Inclusion was defunded in the fiscal 2024 budget.

“When they’re recruiting for careers in Congress, we’re also facilitating conversations about internships in Congress,” Mahfood-Bradley said.