Current Members of Congress Who Used to Be Interns

Everyone gets their start somewhere.  For some members of Congress, their careers kicked off at the bottom of the totem pole, by serving as interns for other members of Congress.  Below is a list of key current members whose experience with the legislative branch started with answering phones and other administrative duties.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA)

The only woman to serve as speaker of the House of Representatives was exposed to politics at an early age, with her father serving as a Democratic Congressman from Maryland, and later, as Mayor of Baltimore.  Pelosi herself first dipped her toes in the political waters when she interned for Sen. Daniel Brewster (D-MD) while pursuing a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in political science at Trinity College in Washington, DC.

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD)

Also serving as an intern in Sen. Brewster’s office alongside the future speaker was the future majority leader, Steny Hoyer.  At the time, Hoyer was finishing up a BA in government and politics from the University of Maryland, College Park.  Just a few years later in 1966, Hoyer was elected to the Maryland State Senate.

Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA)

Hoyer isn’t the only University of Maryland alumnus serving in Congress.  While studying for his BA in government and politics, the California native interned with Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-CA) in 2001 and 2002.  Swalwell has stated that his experience interning on Capitol Hill during the September 11 terrorist attacks cemented his desire to pursue public service. 

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL)

While studying at the University of Miami School of Law, Rubio interned for Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), a fellow Cuban American who retired from Congress only a few years ago.  Rubio also worked on the 1996 presidential campaign of Sen. Bob Dole (R-KS) while in law school.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA)

While attending George Washington University in the mid-1970s, Warner interned for Sen. Abraham Ribicoff (D-CT).  Shortly after graduating, Warner took a job with then-Rep. Chris Dodd (D-CT) and went on to manage Dodd’s senatorial campaign while studying in law school.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY)

Like Pelosi, Gillibrand was born into a political family.  Her father was a staffer for Sen. Al D’Amato (D-NY), and her maternal grandmother founded the Albany Democratic Women’s Club.  While studying at Dartmouth College, Gillibrand interned in D’Amato’s Albany office. 

Will Hill Staffers Unionize?

Hill staffers say they’ve had enough.  Long hours, low pay, and cases of emotional and physical abuse are driving more and more congressional staffers to form the Congressional Workers Union with the hope of delivering better working conditions and higher pay.  But forming a union on the Hill is easier said than done, and staffers hoping for better working conditions in their current roles might have to wait for some time.

Why unionize?  The cost of living in the Washington, DC area is notoriously high, with the average rent for a studio apartment in the District going for $1,891Finding the money to cover high rent can be hard – 13% of Washington-based staff (about 1,200) make less than $42,610 each, which is the average salary needed to cover basic essentials like rent and groceries in DC.   On top of that, staffers face sub-par working conditions that have been regularly documented in the Instagram account @dear_white_staffers, which details stories anonymously of poor treatment by members and staff, harassment, burnout, and more.  Given all these pain points, it’s no surprise that turnover among House staff is at its highest level in 20 years.

High turnover among Hill staffers has negative implications outside of Congress.  For one, it’s bad news for advocates because it gives them fewer opportunities to develop meaningful relationships that help them advance their cause.  Additionally, an ever-changing staff makeup deprives Congress of the institutional knowledge and policy expertise it needs to pass legislation that impacts the American people.  By boosting pay and improving working conditions, congressional staff might be compelled to stick around the Hill longer – allowing them to forge deeper bonds with advocates, and more strongly familiarize themselves on the issues important to them and develop legislation that works better for most Americans.

Unfortunately for staffers, there are a lot of challenges to forming a union on the Hill.  These include:

  • Legal issues.  Congress is exempt from federal labor laws that protect most US employees’ labor-organizing activities.  Absent any legal protections, staff are reluctant to publicly push for a union because it could lead to them being fired or blacklisted.
  • Partisan problems.  In general, Democrats have supported staff efforts to unionize, while Republicans do not.  During a March 2 congressional hearing on a bill to allow staff to collectively bargain, GOP members said unionization efforts were “impractical,” would add to “even more dysfunction in Washington,” and amounted to a “solution in search of a problem.”  Outside of the hearing, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) has referred to unionization as a “terrible idea,” and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) said giving staff the ability to organize is “nuts.” But it’s not just Republicans who stand in the way – Democrats who are generally pro-worker and pro-union could be at risk for allegations of hypocrisy if they fail to support their own staff’s organizing efforts. 
  • Operational considerations.  Congressional offices aren’t like normal businesses that can raise salaries and boost benefits based on market conditions.  Instead, each office is provided a yearly allowance that covers a range of expenses, like staff pay, travel funds, and mail.  Unfortunately, these allowances don’t provide much flexibility on staffers’ salaries.  While the Fiscal Year (FY) 2022 omnibus appropriations bill did boost the yearly allowance for House offices by 21%, this doesn’t guarantee House staffers will see higher pay as a result.  More so, each congressional offices operates independently, which means a unionized congressional staff would essentially involve hundreds of individual unions throughout the Hill.  Additionally, there’s a chance majority and minority staffers on each committee could try to organize separately, adding to the number of potential unions. 

What’s next?  Rep. Andy Levin (D-MI) introduced a resolution that would remove the exemption barring staffers working for individual members, committees and leadership offices to form a union.  To date, Levin’s resolution has garnered 165 cosponsors, all Democrats.  While this resolution would only apply to the House, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) has signaled interested in introducing a resolution for the Senate side. 

Beyond this, next steps are unclear.  Levin’s resolution will require approval from both the House Committee on Administration and House Committee on Education and Labor, and even then, the measure needs the support of 61 additional Democrats before it can secure the 217 votes needed to pass the House.  On top of this, the resolution has some technical issues that will take a few weeks to address.  And while Levin’s resolution would face at least attainable odds of passing in the Democratically controlled House, any Senate resolution on collective bargaining would have little chance of garnering the 60 votes needed to override a filibuster.  No Republican senators have endorsed efforts to unionize, and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) has voiced some skepticism about staffers forming unions.

However, Hill staffers are undeterred in their efforts to advocate for the ability to form unions.  As long as low pay and poor working conditions continue to be a fact of life for employees of congressional offices, staffers will continue to voice for changes to allow them to organize – even if the realization of those changes may be a long way off.

When Will the Capitol Reopen to Visitors?

Washington, DC is coming back.  Since the Omicron wave has receded, the Smithsonian is expanding hours at its museums, foot traffic is picking up along K Street, and downtown bars are feeling a little more crowded during happy hour.  But one major exception to DC’s reopening is the US Capitol Complex, which is still largely closed to visitors.  As the rest of the nation continues to transition to a new normal, lawmakers and advocates are wondering when the Capitol will follow suit.

The Evolving Situation for Visitors

Since the Capitol was closed to the public in March 2020, congressional leaders have yet to publicly outline a reopening timeline.  While guests can currently visit members’ offices in the House and Senate office buildings, not just anyone can walk through the door.  All visitors to members’ offices must register in advance and require a member or staff escort upon arrival.  Additionally, both the House and Senate limits the number of visitors per group.

The reopening process has been off to a gradual start in the Senate.  In December 2021, the Senate reinstated tours for visitors, albeit with strict limitations in place.   Individual Senate offices are only allowed two 30-minute tours per week.  All tours must be staff-led, and only tours of up to six visitors each are permitted every half-hour between 9am and 3pm.  Additionally, tours are limited to the Crypt, the Rotunda, and the Brumidi Corridors.

The Senate took another step towards normalcy on March 1, 2022 when it passed by unanimous consent a resolution to reopen the Senate office buildings to the public.  Since then, lobbyists and other visitors have been able to meet in Senate offices on official business.

Calls to Fully Reopen Capitol Complex Grow

As jurisdictions across the country have loosened COVID-19 restrictions over the past few weeks, a growing number of lawmakers say it’s time for the Capitol to fully reopen to the public.  Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI)  is supportive of more broadly restarting Capitol tours, while Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) called for the Capitol complex to reopen to visitors on March 8 to aid Washington, DC’s tourist economy.  Allowing more visitors on the Hill would align with work habits of congressional staff, who have been increasingly showing up to work in-person after nearly two years of working remotely. 

External stakeholders are weighing in, too.  On March 9, the National Institute for Lobbying and Ethics sent a letter to congressional leaders to start  a dialogue with them on how to reopen the Capitol to the public without appointments.

Why reopen? Congress is an institution that serves the people.  Great strides have been made in advocating virtually, but it’s no replacement for developing relationships through in-person interactions.  By keeping lawmakers and their staff physically separated from the public, advocates are justifiably concerned that they’re limited in how they can communicate their message.

What Reopening Could Look Like

Fortunately for advocates, it appears that congressional leaders are at least thinking about allowing visitors to House offices and tour the Capitol more freely.  According to news reports, the Capitol will kick off its reopening on March 28 with a three-phase process lasting several months. 

  • Starting on March 28, Phase 1 will see the limit on groups of visitors increase from nine to 15, along with the resumption of staff-led tours.  Additionally, school groups will once again be permitted to tour the Capitol, although these tours will be limited to 50 students. 
  • Phase 2 begins on May 30, which will see a “limited reopening” of the Capitol Visitor Center.”
  • Phase 3 will bring a full reopening by Labor Day, although details are still being worked out. 

It should be noted that reopening plans thus far are highly tentative, and the US Capitol Police and the House and Senate sergeants at arms offices are still hashing out the specifics.  A major reason why the reopening is being drawn out over the spring and summer is staffing problems with the Capitol Police, which is currently short hundreds of officers – the department’s training academy was closed during the pandemic, and hundreds of officers resigned following the January 6th riot.

Democrats and Republicans haven’t always been seeing eye to eye in discussions over how to reopen for the past few weeks.   On March 3, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) outlined  some of his concerns during a somewhat tense colloquy with House Republican Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA).  During the colloquy, Hoyer said the Office of the Attending Physician and the Sergeant at Arms are looking into reopening “from a health and security standpoint.”  Hoyer didn’t offer a specific reopening timeline, simply stating, “as soon as we can do that responsibly, we ought to do that.”  Addressing security, Hoyer expressed a desire to have a “gun-free” and “weapon-free” Capitol once it reopens, and he implied the Republicans weren’t taking ramifications of the January 6th riot seriously enough.

Indeed, the security apparatus at the US Capitol Complex haven’t changed much since the deadly riots over a year ago.  The Fiscal Year (FY) 2022 omnibus appropriations bill contains additional funds to update security measures on the Hill and provide for more Capitol Police officers, but this measure was only signed into law days ago, and it will take time for the additional funds to translate into tangible security improvements at the Capitol.  Without new security measures in place, some Democratic lawmakers are still worried that the Capitol is vulnerable to another attack.

The decision to reopen the Capitol is a major step towards normal for lawmakers, advocates, and the general public.   Nonetheless, congressional leaders and the Capitol Police face a difficult job over the next few months as they try to balance the importance of allowing lawmakers to connect in-person with their constituents while addressing security concerns for all parties involved.

How Is the Pandemic Changing Dress Codes on Capitol Hill?

It’s time to reopen the US Capitol to visitors, say a growing number of lawmakers.  Last month, 26 Republicans senators cosponsored a resolution to reopen the US Capitol and Senate Office buildings to the public, and Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) said he’s supportive of restarting tours in the Capitol building.  Even external stakeholder are joining the call – the National Institute for Lobbying and Ethics sent a letter to congressional leaders today urging leadership to start a dialogue with them on how to reopen the Capitol to the public without appointments .

But Congress can’t reopen to the American people without staff members to take meetings and give tours.  Like a lot of Americans, congressional staff have spent most of the past two years working remotely while wearing casual, everyday attire.  What does this mean for the dress code once staffers return to in-person work in Washington? 

Before the pandemic, congressional staff wore professional, business attire on days Congress was in session, while casual attire was permitted when Congress was in recess.   

Since May 2021, staff have been gradually returning to in-person work in Congress, although the actual number of people in offices have shifted based on the surges of the pandemic ( for instance, in early January 2022the Office of Attending Physician urged staff to return to “maximal telework” due to a surge of the Omicron variant ).  Since then, DC-based staff have been dressing more casually in congressional offices, although some exceptions remain.  For example, professional attire is still the norm when appearing on the House or Senate floor or in a committee hearing.  Additionally, staff for congressional leadership like Speaker and the Senate Majority Leader also tends to lean professional.

It’s no surprise that most congressional staff reporting to work in-person can get away with more casual attire when they aren’t taking in-person meetings as congressional offices and the Capitol are still effectively closed to visitors.  Therefore, what does this mean for when the US Capitol Complex reopens to the public? 

While the pandemic has shaken up many aspects of office life, dress codes on Capitol Hill aren’t likely to change significantly, at least for when Congress is in session.  Even though office workers throughout the US have been drifting towards casual clothing more and more in the years leading up to the pandemic, attire in the halls (and offices) of Congress have been slow to change.   Even amid the brutally hot summers of DC, congressional staff still make their way to Capitol Hill in suits.  Once visitors return to the Hill, staffers are likely to greet them in the kind of professional attire they would have seen pre-pandemic – albeit with some slightly casual tones.