Thursday, November 03, 2005

The Petition Game

The senate interns have come up with two new games to make the office a little bit more fun. The first involves counting petitions. We get literally thousands of petitions about hundreds of subjects every day. We throw them in a big box until the end of the week. On Fridays we get all the interns together, and make piles of all the like petitions (e.g. all the anti-abortion petitions in one pile, all the pro-physical therapy funding petitions in another). The goal is to make piles of 50 like petitions as fast as you can. The person with the most piles at the end of petition-sorting wins. Yea, studpid game, right? You try sorting and counting all those tiny pieces of paper.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Fire and Brimstone

Today the interns got to meet the Senator. Today JoAnna got to skip Spanish class to meet the Senator. Can life be any better (?Puede ser viva mejor?)?

The problem with meeting an important person is that I have to physically prepare myself for the event. I have calmed way down since my Senate Feaux Pas on the tram, but I still get butterflies and red-faced when I am around important people. Additionally, I get crazy nightmares about the Senator asking me to make copies of an important speech. I go to press the copy button and the machine not only jams but explodes into a gigantic pile of confetti right on the reception room floor. Right then, a large group of tourists stroll by with another senate intern pointing out my embarrassment as yet another cool capital hill attraction.

What this means, Richard, is that I should never be an important person myself. I would be in a continual state of distress knowing that I would have to talk to other important people every day.

But the day ended up going really well (and I didn't have to make copies for anyone). We took group pictures on one of the Russell Building marble stairways, took a picture one on one with the Senator (who greeted us by name, proving that the briefing book works pretty well....or that the intern coordinator was standing behind us mouthing our names), and then got to crowd around the tiny conference room table to ask the senator any questions we wanted to.

You ever watch C-SPAN? I will admit that I am as addicted to it as my roommate is addicted to Gilmore Girls. But when you watch the senators on the floor, they seem bored, restless, and simply annoyed to have to take time out of their busy schedules to participate in a roll call vote. On occasion they will have a bizarrely heated discussion about sometime weird (like the argument that broke out last week over naming a federal building after Rosa Parks) but generally I am the only person in the world that gets a kick out of C-SPAN.

Talking to a senator (my senator at least) in person is an entirely different experience. It may be that we were a captive audience who would have been please with anything, or that there were no cameras in the room, but the Senator was so excited about all of our questions and answered with so much enthusiasm and passion. Every now and then I am reminded why I like DC and politics and all that: the senators, even the ones I disagree with, got to the senate because they are really smart people with an incredible passion for what they do. My senator is a little unique (aka: a stone cold genius), but speaking about the most mundane topics like poverty and civil rights, the senator's voice started soaring and the speech got more eloquent. By the end of a tirade about the Bush administration's actions concerning Katrina, the Senator was invoking the fire and brimstone that only one of our time's greatest political and oratorical minds can put forth. I truly believe that I am working for the right person and that I am working for the right ideals.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005


Today I was assigned to work on a couple of projects. This is the fun part of interning: you get to work with the staffers on specific issues. Today I was assigned to the legislative assistant in charge of environmental and energy issues. It was my job to compile a bunch of information into a spread sheet that would be used throughout the winter. The best part of this was the comments I received once I emailed it to him: "Thanks, JoAnna! This will provide the basis for several fantastic press releases over the winter." When the senator gives a speech about energy over the next few weeks and months, chances are that some of my work went in to making it possible. Cool, huh?

Project number two: putting together briefing books. Each night we put together a binder that includes a detailed schedule, the names of all the people (names, what they do, why they are visiting, all of the stuff the senator needs to know to sound smart...Sometimes we even include pictures of people) that the senator will have appointments with the following day, all of the speeches that will be given, and all the policy to be announced. If you see a senator in the hallway, chances are that they or their aid tagging along behind them has one of these books.

The interesting part about this book was that I both made it and was in it...The following day all of the interns were meeting for lunch with the senator. We took pictures of all the interns and added brief descriptions of how we all got to be here. The theory is that the Senator, after looking at our pictures and reading the bios, should be able to greet us by name in the hallway. I don't know how effective it is, but I like that my face made it into an important binder.

Friday, October 14, 2005

What Do you Know?

A recent survey conducted by the National Constitution Center sought to figure out how much Americans know about the US government. Before I give you the results, test yourself. How many of the following questions can you answer correctly (answers at the bottom of the page)?

1. When was the US Constitution written?
2. How many voting members are there in the House of Representatives?
3. How many years are there in a Senate term?
4. How many years are there in a Representative's term?
5. How many Senators are there in the US Congress?
6. What is the introduction to the Constitution called?
7. How many branches of the federal government are there?
8. Where was the US Constitution written?
9. What are the first ten amendments to the Constitution called?
10. Who nominates the justices of the Supreme Court?

I have to admit, I did not know how many voting members are in the House of Reps. The majority of Americans didn't know it either. According to the NCC website :
91% of Americans believe that the U.S. Constitution is important to them; and
84% believe that to work as intended, our system of government depends on active and informed citizens, BUT;
More than half of Americans don't know the number of Senators;
About 1 out of 3 don't know the number of branches of the Federal Government;
1 out of 6 believe that the Constitution establishes America as a Christian nation;
20% believe that only lawyers can understand the Constitution;
Almost one-quarter cannot name a single right guaranteed to us by the First Amendment; and
84% believe that the U.S. Constitution is the document that states that "all men are created equal", thus confusing it with the Declaration of Independence.

In fact, only 5% of Americans can answer all 10 questions. 45% of Americans answered between 0 and 4 questions correctly. My favorite responses are that some people believe that the constitution was written in France, and others that the first ten amendments to the constitution are called the Pledge of Allegiance.

Here are the real answers:
1. 1787
2. 435 voting members of the House(although I maintain that the DC rep can vote on some things...Just not war)
3. 6 years
4. 2 years
5. 100 senators
6. Preamble
7. 3 branches
8. Philadelphia
9. The Bill of Rights
10. The president

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

An Impostor!

I learned a couple of the coolest things today.

You will have to forgive me for the first one...I think it borders on bragging. I learned today that over 350 students applied for my office's intern positions. Of those 350, almost all of the applications from non-constituents were thrown out. Of the remaining, 20 interns were chosen. Let me remind you: the senator I work for is not my state's senator. Therefore, it was really hard not to jump up and down and squeal like a third grader at a slumber party when I found out this information.

Now that I have that out of my system....

I also learned about autopenning (when a machine writes the signature, not a human being). You might remember how much trouble Dick Cheney got in a couple years ago when people found out he was autopenning condolence letters to families of fallen soldiers. Not a very politically savvy move, eh?

The Ghostwriter:
You might find something like this in a government office

I, however, feel for him. I know how much mail goes through government offices on a daily basis: my office alone gets about 500 letters on a good day....A not so good day brings us about 1,000 (oh yes, I get to read and respond to a good portion of those). Imagine how much time a Senator would spend every day just signing things. By the end of the day, their fingers would fall off, they would miss three floor votes, and their signature would look like mush.

Senate offices have solved this problem in a few different ways. Some offices choose to just not answer mail unless it is sent by email. I personally find this method obnoxious and counter to democracy (for example, how would I voice my displeasure with welfare or support for the Hunger-Free Communities Act if I was an under-the-poverty-line mother of four who couldn't afford a computer, let alone internet access?).

Other offices, a vast majority of them, in fact, authorize a few trusted staffers to forge the Senator's signature. They are required to practice it over and over again until all the staffers can make pretty accurate, identical signatures. Then the fun begins! Really, you would have to trust your staff completely to believe that they would not abuse that privilege.

A small percentage of offices do in private what Dick Cheney got in public trouble for...They autopen almost everything. And what's fun is that you can tell which Senators use the machine, and those that don't. It helps if you can compare two of the Senator's signatures; identical signatures never happen in real life, especially if you are signing 500 letters a day (or if your staffers are signing them for you).

If that is not possible, look closely at the signature. If your senator is under the age of, say, sixty, and the lines are wiggly like the Senator has palsy, they are using an old, outdated autopen badly in need of repair.

No luck there? Take a fat marker and, pressing down really hard, make a line on a piece of paper. See how there is a dot at the top and the bottom of your line? Now smoothly write your name with the same marker. No dots right? Just a smooth line. The autopen makes marks more like your first line. It doesn't have the ability to make smooth lines. So if you see dots at the tops and bottoms of all the letters, chances are that the signature is autopenned.

Stuff you never knew, right? But which Senator's use the autopen? Who knows? Not something we talk about. And really, why spoil the illusion?

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

A Woman's Dream or Nightmare?

My dad called me the morning of Bush's announcement about the nomination of Harriet E. Miers to see what I thought about the Texas attorney turned nominee to the highest court in the land. The only judgment I could give him at the time was that she wears too much eye-liner. I have the feeling I was not the only one scratching my head wondering where in the world this nomination came from.
So, I did what every girl challenged by her (coughslightlymoreconservativecough) father would do... I did my research. Here is what I discovered:

1. She was the first woman to be hired by a big Texas law firm (of which she became the first female president).
2. She was the first woman to head both the Dallas and Texas State Bar Associations.
3. She is a pretty good corporate litigator with a darn good record in court.
4. She was a top white house official, specifically white house council.
5. She was head of the Texas Lottery commission (I find this achievement a little random).
6. She takes care of her ailing mother (still not sure why this is important, but the media seems to think that it is...Show off her feminine side I guess).

To my dismay, I also found out that she has no judicial experience, no real constitutional law background, and, most upsetting to me, no paper trail. Basically, putting Miers on the Supreme Court would be like making a person an elementary school teacher without first sending them to college and doing a background check. Who knows what their opinion on corporal punishment is, let alone whether they know how to write out a lesson plan?

American women wanted another woman to replace Sandra Day O'Connor because we thought that a woman could better uphold our rights. And powerful women will continue to be great role models to our little sisters. But with some of the most contentious debates our nation has ever seen on the Supreme Court Docket this season (as if I even have to mention abortion and the right to privacy) there is no guarantee that the rights I want her to uphold will even exist next year.

I just want to sum up by sharing something I found in last week's National Journal.

"She once told me that the president was the most brilliant man she had ever met." So reports conservative writer and former Bush speechwriter David Frum, in National Review Online. Unless White House Counsel Harriet Miers explains that she was joking or Frum was hallucinating, this alone may cast enough doubt on her judgment to warrant a "no" vote on her Supreme Court nomination.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Anti-War Protests

Since this blog is political in nature, I thought you might be interested in seeing some pictures of the Iraq protest that happened this Saturday. I found the protest interesting not so much for the day's events, but for who attended. Most of the people there were my parents' age. These are people that remember Vietnam and are still angry that our government participated in that war. It was not today's college students cheering Cindy Sheehan (who was arrested this weekend, by the way) and chanting peace slogans. Enjoy the pictures!

Code Pink Rally

Creative Signage

Older Crowd Rocks the House

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Pumps and Pumpkins

Today I went to work wearing a collared shirt, nice skirt, nylons and cute black pumps. With my badge, I looked like the ideal capital hill upstart. When I arrived at work, I was immediately handed a hand cart and told to go to the loading dock. Today was Farm Day!
Farm Day is when the senator invites farmers, wine-makers, restaurateurs and a whole lot of important people to experience the variety of the state's culinary wonders. The event wouldn't start until the evening, but the interns would be working on it all day.

So off I went in my heels to haul several cart loads of crepes, apples, and maple syrup from the loading dock in the basement, to the Caucus room on the third floor. I helped set up tables, unload carts, clean 500 wine glasses, and show all the chefs around the kitchen (yes, interns work in the Senate cafeteria now, too). This was actually pretty fun because I got to talk to people from all kinds of backgrounds and learn about all things culinary.

The best part of the afternoon was when the Senator decided to do a video about Farm Day. It was my job to provide the vegetables that would be in the background. The vegetables were down in the caucus room on one side of the building on the third floor. My senator's office is on the other side of the building on a different floor. This gave me the opportunity to drag a huge pumpkin and a crate full of bell peppers and shucked corn down the hallowed halls of a public government building.

Pumps, pumpkin, skirt, bell peppers, nylons, corn. Oh my. I got about half way to the elevator when all of the corn (who had been plotting since we left the caucus room) counted to three and leapt from the crate and scurried down the hall. Fortunately, a camera man (who must have played foot ball in high school the way he tackled that corn) grabbed the escapees and, laughingly, helped me regroup. I finally go to the conference room where filming was to take place. The vegetable arrangement was a success and I made it back to the caucus room without dropping anymore produce.

Friday, September 23, 2005

I Am Iron(wo)man!

What do sexism, Medicare, JoAnna and the number 110 have in common? Walking into work and noting the mountain of boxes outside the correspondence office, I was destined to find out.

The task of the day was to pack, label, and haul to the post office 110, twenty-five pound boxes of Medicare pamphlets. Now think about this: This summer I worked at a factory doing pretty much the same thing. So I am extremely good at the heavy lifting, packing, and taping of boxes (here's my modesty showing through). But this summer, I got to wear jeans and steel toed boots. And I was paid. And the postal truck came right to the door to pick up the boxes I packaged.

That's not how things work in the senate offices. Thus for the next four hours I dragged boxes down the freight elevator on a cart, twelve at a time. I pushed them down the hall, gathering speed, and then struggled up a ramp to arrive at the post office. There I had to lift each box on to the counter to be labeled.

The purpose of me telling you this is not to complain. Instead it is to note the incredible sexism that exists in the very buildings in which our government resides. As I pushed the boxes down the hall, every man I walked by asked me "who is making girls do this kind of work?" and then asked if they could push the cart for me. I really wouldn't have minded if they had just asked to help me out. Instead of that vote of confidence, they underestimated me because of my gender. What do I have to do, let them feel my biceps? Have them watch me do 100 pound squats wearing heels?

Needless to say, it's scary to think this kind of behavior runs rampant, playing tag and duck duck goose in the offices of our nation's leaders.

To sum up, if you are going to be in the DC area on October 1st (this coming Saturday) you should come to American University Women's Initiative's Breastival. The festival focuses on Breast Cancer Awareness but also addresses a variety of women's issues (including sexism). See you there.

Friday, September 16, 2005

A Medallion and a Yarmulke

So, looks like Roberts will be the senate's pick, doesn't it? Anyone who finds that scary, raise your hand. Raise your hand again if you are terrified about the possibility of Bush nominating another justice. In my opinion, we are putting our reproductive and civil rights in unreliable hands. Did I tell you that I tried to get into the nomination committee hearings last week? Even with my badge the secret service man wouldn't let me in. He told me to "go stand in line for a pass like everyone else." Sigh....

Today, I was given the job of sorting through all the gifts that people send the senator. We are only allowed to accept gifts that cost less than $50. Everything else gets sent back to the giver. If it is $49.99 or less, it gets logged in, a thank you letter is sent out, and JoAnna gets to sort through the strange assortment of goods that people thought the senator couldn't do without. This included a giant drawing of the senator, several knitted fun-fur scarves, a tapestry, a bracelet from a department store, and a music box. My favorites, however, were a hand painted (with puffy paints)yarmulke and a heavy medallion displaying the ten commandments.

The blankets, t-shirts and other clothing will be donated to some charity group. No idea what will happen to the yarmulke. Local synagogue, maybe?

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Can I Sit Under a Tree?

So, today I showed up at work and the first thing I saw was eight children and their parents, several men in military garb, and a room full of men speaking some African language. The first thing I heard was, "JoAnna, briefing in 5 minute!"

Apparently, today was a photo shoot day. Every now and then several groups of people come all at one time to get their pictures taken with the Senator on the steps of the Capitol Building. And who better to take care of them than the interns?

I was put in charge of the "men speaking some African language." They happened to be a Parliamentary Delegation from Kenya here to observe the John Roberts confirmation hearings. The delegation was basically Kenya's version of a Judiciary Committee. I was to take the Committee down the hall, down the stairs, out of the building, across the street, and through the construction zone by the capitol building and then arrange them in an aesthetically pleasing fashion. The senator was supposed to be able to step in, have the picture taken, and step out without any problems.

Here's what's troubling about this situation: A single US senator goes to an African country. What happens? There are secret service everywhere, the president of the country comes out to the airport to meet her, there is a big celebration (or at least a dinner honoring them).

Now answer me this. What happens when a WHOLE DELEGATION of Kenyan senators comes to the US? They are met at the airport by two guys (only one of which can speak their language) and brought to a senator's office where they are told to stand in the hall. At that point, an intern with two days of experience takes them out in the hot sun to wait a half hour for a senator to show up.

Can you imagine how frustrating and embarrassing it is for me, let alone for them, to have a national leader have to ask an intern if he can sit under a tree to get out of the sun? I can not believe we treat people from other countries this way! We should take an active part in other countries' parliamentary processes. We should be encouraging democracy, not denigrating other countries' officials to the level of interns and 2 minute publicity shots.

And that's all I have to say about that.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Senate Faux Pas

Today was one giant adventure. It started with me getting a security badge. Now I can ride the underground tram between the senate buildings and the capitol building, get into the staff section of the gallery, and sign for things at printing and graphics. Now that's power.

I spent most of the rest of the day answering constituent mail. But towards the end of the day, I was asked to do a sort of scavenger hunt to find all the important places that I will frequent as an intern. These places included the stationary shop, cafeteria, all three committee rooms my senator visits, and the senate post office. Then I was asked to find rooms in the Capitol. Here's where I made my blunder.

The tram between the senate buildings and the capitol is a string of 5 mostly glass cars that anyone with a badge (as well as tour groups) can use to get from place to place. The first car is for Senators only (so that they can get to their floor votes without dealing with hoards of people).

I climbed onto one of the back cars and watched as two men in suits climbed on and sat down in the seat across from me. They were very relaxed, slouching in their seats, laughing and joking together. Of course a terrified, young intern draws a little attention (I think people pity us), and the two men starting talking to me. They asked who I intern for, where I'm from, what I was doing today. I loosened up a bit and was joking and laughing with them. Then came my "Anne-of-Green-Gables" moment. I asked, "So, what do you do here?"

The younger of the two men holds his breath and looks expectantly at the other. The older man cocks his head, hesitates and, as a grin spreads across his face, slowly says, "oh, not much...I'm just a senator."

Yes, I'm an idiot. The men I had been joking with (not with deference by the way) turned out to be a senior senator and his aid. Worse: I had no idea which senator he was. After I had stopped choking on my fleeing dignity, I had to ask which state he represented and which senator he was. Mercifully, the tram had arrived at its destination and the Senator had to hurry away for a roll call vote. I was left to trudge through my embarrassment to my next destination.

The rest of the day went well. With the help of Capitol Security and a couple of plain clothes secret service officers, I was able to find the gallery, the cloakrooms (both the democratic and the republican), and, my favorite, the rotunda. The rotunda is the big dome you see in pictures of the capitol building. Many of you have probably been on a tour there and seen all of the huge, gilt-framed paintings of famous people, the marble floors, and the painted inside of a sky-scraping, hollow dome. But to stand in this room, by myself, realizing that I am one of a tiny percentage of people that will ever get the chance to do so...It took me minutes to breathe normally again.

I am not the girl that loves history or maintains an overwhelming sense of patriotism. I am more likely to protest against our administration than participate in it. But every time I walk into the capitol building or even into the dingy Dirksen offices, I am in awe of how much work gets done, how brilliant the people are, how amazing our government really is.

Let's just hope (cross your fingers) that if I ever work full time in the legislature that a certain senior senator doesn't remember the silly intern he met on the senate tram.

Monday, September 05, 2005

A Day In the Life of an Intern

The first day of my internship was both exciting and nerve-wracking. I have to admit that although I can do speeches in front of hundreds of people or take calls from scores of angry customers at work, the thought of meeting important people like senators and diplomats was enough to make me want to throw up. Surprising, huh? I can see Janna exclaiming right now, "JoAnna was nervous!?!?!" Yea, yea I was. You try it.

The pure nervousness was increased by the fact that I had neglected to scope out my office building beforehand, and didn't know how long it would take to get from AU to Union Station. The answer to the latter question is....A really, really long time. I can get a solid chapter of constitutional law read or a nice nap in the time it takes me to get downtown.

The three Senate buildings are all unique, each with its own "personality." The Hart building is large, open, and airy. The floor to ceiling windows and 7 story tall modern art sculpture make you think you are in a corporate bank headquarters. Barack Obama's (one of my favorite people) office is in this building. Dirksen Senate building is Hart's older and more modestly dressed sister. It reminds me of an urban county courthouse: I am always waiting for someone to tell me to pay a parking ticket or join a jury or something. Russell Building is what you would picture the building of our country's highest legislative body to look like. Grand marble stair cases, echoing hallways and state flags outside the heavy, wood-paneled office doors. I love click-clacking down the halls of Russell in my high heels, looking for the "prettiest" senate office.

The first day was all about the mail system. One of my jobs will be to read, categorize and respond to every single piece of mail that comes into the office. It is a daunting job that takes up most of all the interns' time. We use a computer program that generates form letters and inserts people's addresses for us.

Later this week, I will learn how to use the phone system and will hopefully get my security badge (right now I am walking around semi-illegally). Wish me luck!

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Interns: Wearing Many Hats

Interning for a US Senator is often viewed as one of the most prestigious, experience-building, coolest things an undergraduate can do. And I have to agree.

But there is a lot behind the scenes that people don't think about. For example, most senate interns are not getting college credit for their work (meaning they have a full class schedule to attend and do homework for). Also, interning involves a variety of jobs, from letter writing, to research, to giving tours, to answering phones.

Barring any complaints from the Secret Service over content issues, I seek to bring you the inside scoop on the multi-faceted job of Senate intern.

Note to Secret Service: I am sure you have done a complete background check on me by now and know what my grades were in 8th grade, that my favorite food is rice krispy treats, and that I need to go shopping for new panty-hose. Thus, if you have issues with this blog, please feel free to give me a call (since I am positive you have my number). Thanks!