Most of the 4,000 interns who come to Capitol Hill during the summer work for free. They answer phones, give tours, and respond to constituents, all for the chance to start their way up the Washington ladder.
But over the past two years, Max Engling, 25, a staff assistant for the House Administration Committee, has been working tirelessly to see that the intern experience is worthwhile. Since Engling began co-coordinating the Congressional Summer Intern Lecture Series in 2011, the series has become more formalized and has brought at least one big-time political speaker to the stage every day for eight weeks in June and July.
The series has grown so popular that some of Washington’s biggest names are scrambling for the chance to speak to those lowest on the totem pole.
This week alone, every House and Senate intern will have the opportunity to listen to and ask questions of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, MSNBC chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., Attorney General Eric Holder, Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., NPR political commentator Cokie Roberts, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
“Interns don’t get a ton of benefits here on the Hill, and we want to make sure we extend as much to them as we possibly can,” Engling said.
Attendance is voluntary, yet lines of interns waiting to hear a popular speaker can be seen winding through the halls. The lectures last an hour—40 minutes of which are devoted to a question-and-answer session—and are closed to the press and even congressional staff so that the conversation will be candid.
Engling must balance chamber, party, and branch of government in his selection of speakers, all the while finding times and gathering spaces that are convenient to the legions of interns who attend.
Engling, his assistant George Gerbo, and his counterpart in the Senate, Nathan Strege, began culling a list of more than 200 potential speakers in February and pared it down to about 100. This is Strege’s first year co-coordinating the series, while Engling learned the ropes as assistant last summer.
Engling said that the list is made up of “anyone the interns may find interesting,” and he runs the candidates by interns in his office. Most names are carryovers from years past, so only a few openings are left for new lecturers, although many solicit Engling for a chance to speak.
The real challenge is not in finding appealing speakers, Engling and Strege said, but in finding enough space for the crowds that show up for the big names. Some of the most popular speakers include New York Times columnist David Brooks, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Panetta, and Scalia.
Intern Clinton Leman, who just left the office of Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill., said that the best speakers are charismatic and tell the audience how they got to be where they are today.
“The tone you got from a lot of lectures was to set your aspirations high but also be flexible,” Leman said.
Engling said that interns are most interested in professional guidance, and the lectures rarely turn partisan. Scalia is the only Supreme Court justice to address the interns this summer and, while the room was at capacity, not one asked him to comment on the Court’s decision to uphold the health care law’s individual mandate.
Although the nonpartisan atmosphere is a point of pride for Engling and Strege, Leman said he noticed interns gravitating to lecturers who share their political beliefs.
The lecture series began under Republican hands when then-Reps. Gerald Ford, R-Mich., and Donald Rumsfeld, R-Ill., began the intern committee in the 1960s. Since then, the series has become bicameral, bipartisan, and, under Engling’s leadership, more frequent. Engling said the logistical hoops he jumps through are worth it at the end of the day. He interned during the winter when the lecture series was not offered.
“The benefits to the interns are obvious, and kind of selfishly I like hearing what these people have to say too,” Engling said. “So that kind of pays for all the work that you put into it.”
This article appears in the July 25, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.