Witnessing history as a congressional intern in Washington D.C.

Witnessing history as a congressional intern in Washington D.C.

International Relations student Laura Macdonald was one of four New Zealanders selected for an internship in Washington D.C., working in offices of Members of Congress through the NZUS Council Mike Moore Congressional Internship Programme. Laura interned for 10 weeks in the office of Representative Hank Johnson.

 
Congressional interns from New Zealand, Kaitlyn White (Canterbury Uni), Annie MacDonald, Max Beckert (Canterbury Uni) and Laura Macdonald.

During our first week in Washington D.C. working as congressional interns in November last year, people commented on how we were in the United States capital at such an interesting time. It was soon after the 2018 midterm elections in which the Democrats had won back control of the House and American voters had elected Congress’s most racial and gender-diverse class of ‘freshmen’ in history. And Donald Trump was president, of course, so it was bound to be interesting. We had no idea just how interesting our time would be. Over the course of 10 weeks, we had the privilege of witnessing history on a number of occasions.

In our second week, former US president George H. W. Bush died, and D.C. came to a standstill as his body was brought to Capitol Hill to lie in state. We stood in line with thousands of Capitol Hill staff and members of the public—many of who had travelled from around the country—to pay our respects. A few weeks later, as members of Congress and their staff counted down the days to Christmas, D.C. ground to a halt once more—this time because of a partial government shutdown. The 24/7 cable news had broadcast the impending doom, ticking down the minutes until funding expired for a quarter of the country’s federal agencies and departments. Meetings were held between Democratic leaders and the President as they tried in vain to reach a compromise to avert the shutdown. It ended up being the longest partial government shutdown in US history.

In between all this madness, we had the opportunity to see first-hand the inner workings of the American political system. My days were spent speaking on the phone with constituents, researching legislation, writing speeches, and attending briefings on important topics like gun violence, immigration, and human rights. There is only so much you can learn in a classroom; the real education happens in the maze of basement corridors snaking beneath Capitol Hill as you struggle to find your way to countless meetings and committee hearings. Nothing beats the sense of pride when, for the first time, you do not get completely lost in the halls of Congress’s sub-basement.

Future historians will no doubt reflect on this time as one of the most interesting periods in US politics and we will forever be able to claim that we were congressional interns during the Trump era.

Laura Macdonald is a student in the Master of International Relations programme.

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