The unexpected dividends of a congressional internship

The unexpected dividends of a congressional internship

By James R. Jones

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When I first set foot on Capitol Hill 18 years ago to begin my summer internship, I was immediately struck by the awe-inspiring presence of the Capitol. Its majestic architecture exuded a sense of grandeur and significance. It left me breathless. As I stepped inside, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of reverence for the institution at the heart of US democracy. It is the space where our nation’s leaders undertake some of the country’s most vital work, but as I discovered, it is also a profoundly influential and intricate workplace.

For nine weeks, I had unlimited access to the hallowed hallways of Congress, an opportunity that filled me with excitement and anticipation every time I walked past “authorized personnel” signs. I harbored naive assumptions about what my internship would entail, envisioning myself spending countless hours with my representative. I imagined him taking me under his wing, mentoring me as his next political protege. That did not happen. Instead, we had a cordial yet distant relationship that primarily involved brief salutations and occasional exchanges about the progress of my internship. For most of the summer, I spent my time working closely with his staff.

The Rep’s staff taught me about the intricacies of working on Capitol Hill by involving me in their daily work. They educated me on the legislative process and deciphering procedural motions. They allowed me to participate in strategy sessions with fellow staffers and contribute to writing press statements and policy memos. By the end of my internship, I developed a deep appreciation for the rep’s staff as the people who manifested his political agenda. Congressional staff perform a long list of tasks including: researching policy issues, writing legislation, drafting speeches and speaking points, responding to countless constituent inquiries, monitoring House and Senate floor proceedings as well as committee hearings, and offering vote recommendations. They work long hours and often for pay that is considerably lower than what their peers earn in the city. Without their contributions it would be impossible for lawmakers and Congress to function properly.

While my internship provided me insight into the inner workings of congressional workplace, it also revealed the racial segregation of congressional offices. In my office, Black staffers held senior roles, however, whenever I visited the offices of White lawmakers, rarely did I see a person of color in a senior position. What’s more, I even felt the weight of this segregated system whenever I ventured through the halls of Capitol and navigated through a sea of white bodies dressed in dark hued suits. These experiences led me to ask, if congressional staff are the driving force behind legislative work, what are the consequences when this important representative work is overwhelmingly done by whites?

After completing my internship, I realized that the answers to these questions weren’t readily available. Congressional staff and the racial dynamics shaping their daily work were absent from my political science courses and largely overlooked in major national news outlets. It became evident to me that the pervasive whiteness on Capitol Hill was a seldom-discussed issue beyond the confines of the Washington beltway, despite its significant national implications. I resolved to learn more and share what I learned in my new book, “The Last Plantation.”

I conducted interviews with more than 75 congressional staffers to explore essential aspects of the contemporary congressional workplace and the impact of racism in their work. I asked staffers about how they managed to break into an exclusive workplace, their approaches to shaping their boss’s legislative agenda and how they understood the efforts of racism in their work. Centering the experiences of Black staffers, my research elucidates how institutionalized racism within Congress influences both policy development and personnel dynamics

In  “The Last Plantation,” I illustrate how a predominantly white congressional workforce runs counter to the democratic ideals of the legislature. The title dates back six decades when lawmakers passed federal anti-discrimination laws that applied to all major employers except for Congress itself. This exemption earned the legislature an inglorious nickname, the last plantation,  highlighting the contradiction whereby lawmakers passed landmark legislation to propel the country into an anti-racist future yet simultaneously allowed themselves to remain entrenched in a bygone era.

Today, lawmakers do not openly discriminate in hiring as they had in the past, instead an institutionalized form of inequality governs the Capitol’s workplace. Inequality perpetuates through insular and non-transparent hiring practices as well as unpaid and low-paid internships. This type of social arrangement excludes anyone who is not well-connected or wealthy and lays the foundation for a racially stratified workforce. The result is not only a legislative workforce that is overwhelmingly white, but one that cannot effectively govern and represent the interests of an increasingly ethnically and racially diverse society. Focusing on Black staff, I show why racial representation is so crucial. Illuminating the subtleties of legislative work, I reveal how Black staff engage in inclusive policy making that confronts racial biases, which often are not always apparent to their white peers and advocate for marginalized communities. This inclusive approach manifests in discussions about immigration, which constituents a congressperson should visit, and of course whom to hire. What’s more, the racial makeup of congressional staff does not only affect policy formation, but the entire American political system as these professionals leave the Hill they ascend to more influential roles in the executive and judicial branches, state and local government, and corporate and non profits industries.

Reflecting on my congressional internship nearly two decades ago, I gained far more than I initially anticipated. Although I didn’t develop a close rapport with my congressman, I acquired invaluable professional skills in policy research and writing. Moreover, I had the privilege of accessing an institution that most Americans only encounter through media coverage. Witnessing Congress firsthand offered me insight into its dynamic social environment, inhabited by tens of thousands of professionals actively contributing to policy making. It also provided a sobering glimpse into how race and racism influence the landscape of work and policy within these halls of power.

James R. Jones is associate professor of Africana Studies and Sociology and the inaugural director of the Sheila Y. Oliver Center for Politics and Race in America at Rutgers University Newark.