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Hill Internships 101: What You Need to Know

Congressional Staffers Give Their Advice to the Hill’s Newest Workers

Courtesy Office of Rep. Jo Bonner
Jo Bonner (right) talks with then-Rep. Jack Edwards in the summer of 1981. Bonner, now a House Member from Alabama, was an intern in Edwards’ office that year.

You’ve landed an impressive new internship, moved into a decent apartment, figured out the Metro, braved the heat and smiled a toothy grin for that shiny new gray badge.

But all that doesn’t guarantee a smooth internship. To help keep you from becoming one of the “what not to do” examples for next year’s fresh crop of interns, we’ve gathered advice from Hill staffers, former interns, career counselors and even a Member of Congress.

The best advice was also the biggest.

Sen. Mark Kirk started out as a legislative counsel for the House International Relations Committee and worked as a Hill staffer for years. Above everything else, the Illinois Republican gave this tip:

“Remember the feeling you had when you first saw the Capitol and hope 50 years from now you still feel the same way.”

No. 1: Keep It to Yourself

The top piece of advice shared by those on the Hill? What happens in the office stays in the office, no matter what.

Rep. Jo Bonner (R-Ala.) got his start on Capitol Hill as an intern for then-Rep. Jack Edwards (R-Ala.). Bonner moved up the ranks, serving as chief of staff for Rep. Sonny Callahan (R-Ala.). When Callahan retired, Bonner ran for and won his seat.

Although he acknowledges that much of the advice he received is now “eligible for the Smithsonian Institution,” he still emphasizes the importance of keeping constituent details private.

“You’re going to see things and hear things and recognize names back home of people that you may know, yet you didn’t know they were going through a financial difficulty or they needed the help of a government agency or service,” Bonner said. Although Capitol Hill can be a fun environment, “remember that when you’re here in this office, you have to treat something that comes to us — a letter, fax or phone call — with respect.”

Belle, a Hill staffer who runs the blog Capitol Hill Style and operates under a pseudonym because of Ethics Committee rules, agrees.

The interns who stand out in her mind as the “worst” were those who said things they shouldn’t have, she said.

“Facebook and social media are great, but a lot of the over-sharing I’ve seen interns do is done over social media,” she said. “You really have to err on the side of caution. It’s not to be talked about outside the office.”

No. 2: Take Initiative

If you’ve done your research, you’re probably prepared for the tasks that will soon eat up your summer: answering endless phone calls, sorting mountains of mail and guiding repetitive constituent tours.

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