The View From The Hill

Written by Cicero:

Washington Capitol Hill

Interns Are Only The Messengers

As an intern, I’m fully aware of my status and social standing within Washington DC and Capitol Hill – or rather, the complete lack thereof. Congressional interns are infamous for their inexperience and lack of procedural understanding, often coupled an obnoxious overconfidence. There are, of course, exceptions to this stereotype; a vast majority of the interns I have interacted with — so far — have been loyal, humble, hard-working, and have exhibited a genuine desire to learn. However, the stigma attached to interns is not likely to change, and often comes with its own political message.

On Tuesday, I attended a House briefing on humanitarian aid and the Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). Present were Joel Charny, Vice President for Humanitarian Policy and Practice at InterAction, Paul O’Brien, the Vice President for Policy and Campaigns for Oxfam America, Chris Palusky, the Senior Director of Humanitarian and Emergency Affairs at World Vision, and Bernice Romero, Senior Director of Humanitarian Policy and Advocacy with Save the Children. By all accounts, these were incredibly qualified and blisteringly intelligent individuals. The assembled audience consisted almost entirely of interns, whose young faces and looks of uncertainty were unmistakable, and no doubt mirrored on my own face as well.

The discussion was lively and informative, and as such discussions often do, quickly turned to the topic of fundraising. Something that I was interested to learn is that private citizens are eager to donate to humanitarian efforts when there is a natural disaster, but reluctant to do so during human-caused disasters such as the ongoing Syrian conflict. Ultimately, groups like Oxfam or World Vision rely largely on contributions from governments like the United States and the United Kingdom, or intergovernmental organizations such as the European Union. These three institutions are the largest contributors to humanitarian NGOs, but with policies of austerity and deficit reduction, funds are rapidly drying up.

An offhand comment made by Bernice Romero struck me as being part of the root of the problem. “I often joke with my friends about how they’re the ‘real lobbyists’”, she said during the question-and-answer period. “Sometimes they tell me about how they’ve just come out of an hour meeting with a congressperson in their office, and I tell them about how I just got to speak to an intern from that office for ten minutes down the hall by the bathroom.”

While this comment was made in jest, there seemed to be an underlying frustration throughout the briefing, chiefly regarding the inability of Congress to support or even listen to humanitarian causes. I found myself feeling very sympathetic, even though I, as an intern, am ostensibly part of the problem. The office of Congresswoman Napolitano is more than willing to receive humanitarian organizations, and has done so many times, even within the brief time I have been working there. The same is not true of every congresspersons’ office.

The attitudes of some of the interns who represented conservative offices ranged from skeptical to downright hostile. At one point, an intern from Senator Marco Rubio (R – FL) asked why the United States should care about the plight of citizens of other nations, and whether we should spend any money on humanitarian aid at all. This rather callous remark was handled brilliantly by Paul O’Brien, who discussed the nature of the humanitarian imperative. However, despite the well-known tactless bluster of interns, this sort of position does indeed seem to reflect the views of the Congressional offices they work for and are learning from. Ultimately, austerity and deficit reduction may be blamed for cuts to humanitarian agencies, but the simple truth is that many members of congress simply do not support these organizations or their causes.

Meeting with interns is often construed as a political insult, both by those sending the interns and those receiving them. This stigma has been built up over decades of reinforcement. More often than not, an intern will say something offensive or insulting, if for no other reason than many of us are too inexperienced to be guarded in what we say and maintain constant political correctness.

(Photo by flickr user Arend)

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