Legislative Internships Have Launched Many on Their Political Journeys
By Holly South
"I would never have ended up in state government if not for the legislative internship,” says Adam Crumbliss, chief clerk of the Missouri House of Representatives.
Crumbliss’ internship with former Representative Gary Burton (R), a family friend and mentor, “encouraged me to get engaged and learn how state government impacts the lives of citizens.” He quickly learned that “most legislators and staff, irrespective of political or partisan belief, have a genuine desire to serve their fellow citizens.”
The experience gave him “an amazing opportunity to understand the inner workings of the process.” In fact, it changed his life. He was so inspired to rejoin the General Assembly that after college, instead of applying to law school, he went back to the Capitol.
Crumbliss’ case shows that when an internship program works well, everyone benefits: A student learns firsthand about the legislature and gets real-world work experience. A legislative office enjoys the help of an additional staffer. And a legislature is strengthened by the commitment of a young adult whose appreciation for the institution, state government and public policy leads him to make a career of it.
Learning the Process
Highly regarded internship programs are built on a commitment from the legislature to the program’s success, a focus on career development and an emphasis on participation in the legislative process. The good ones tend to attract plenty of applicants.
Connecticut’s program, codified in state law in 1969, is administered by a bipartisan committee of senators and representatives who communicate its importance to their caucuses. Interns are engaged in all facets of the legislative process and are encouraged to attend any committee meeting, session or forum on issues of interest to them. They also participate with other students in a mock session. “Our goal is future leader development,” Lisa Roy, the program’s director, says. “We hope they are inspired by what they see here, so they want to support good policymaking for the state of Connecticut.”
Roy says that because universities now emphasize experiential learning, legislatures face stiff competition for the best students. “In response,” she says, “we’ve expanded the career development aspect and are emphasizing that it’s a supported program—with training and workshops and a director on-site. We’re preparing a higher level of employee.”
Running an internship program is an opportunity to cultivate students’ appreciation for the legislature and to prepare the next generation. “What satisfies us,” says Sheila Mason, director of the Legislative Research Commission’s internship program in Kentucky, “is seeing how many former interns go on to do government work.”
California’s Capital Fellows Programs consist of four individual fellowships in the state’s legislative, executive and judicial branches. They attract “a diverse group from throughout the state … of graduate students interested in a career in public service,” Brian Aguilar, director of the Executive Fellowship Program, says. “Former fellows can be found throughout all three branches of government.”
The Legislature also includes several alumni of an internship program in the Office of the Chief Clerk.
“My internship morphed into a job opportunity,” Neva Parker, the California Senate Journal clerk, says. “I’ve been here ever since. I learned everything I needed to build a good career; from interacting with my coworkers to best practices for the work I do now with the Senate Journal.”
Her internship, she says, “led me to discovering other areas of work I could do, some strengths I didn’t know I had, and opened up more opportunities for me than I thought I had when I was first entering the work world.”
Just Like Staff
Good programs offer interns the opportunity to interact with legislative leaders, executive branch and state agency personnel, and lobbyists to better understand state government. They get a chance to do constituent work, policy research and other duties of a legislative aide.
“There was nothing more energizing or satisfying than assisting a citizen by navigating the bureaucracy and finding a reasonable solution to a complex constituent problem,” Crumbliss says. He has supervised several interns himself, including three former interns now on staff at the Missouri House. “They each underscore the importance of interns in the legislative environment. I interact with several interns each session day, and can’t imagine the Missouri Capitol without their eagerness, enthusiasm and assistance.”
Legislators participate as lecturers in semiweekly intern seminars in Kentucky. Mason, who has led the program since 2000, gauges lawmakers’ enthusiasm “based on the acceptance and respect they give to the interns.” The most interested lawmakers see the interns “as part of staff” and “want to see students from schools in their district participating.” Mason views the internship program as part of the legislative branch’s role in civic education, “an opportunity for legislators to involve students in the legislative process and give them a feel for what it’s about.”
Legislative leaders have consistently supported Tennessee’s Legislative Internship Program as both an education for students and a way to nurture potential state leaders. Christy Behnke, the program’s director, says Tennessee is showcasing legislative work as a career and showing students “there are opportunities for growth, that there are leadership positions and a lot of opportunity.”
Support from the Tennessee General Assembly includes funding for a designated administrator to serve as a resource for students and legislative offices, to supervise the academic program and to coordinate placements meaningful to an intern’s professional development.
Besides working alongside legislators and staff, interns are also often required to reflect on their experience through coursework that complements their jobs in the statehouse. This may include a bill-tracking project, a policy paper or a field trip to observe policy in action.
Getting Them Oriented
Because this often is their first formal work experience, interns benefit not only from training in their specific job responsibilities, but also from an orientation that instructs them on legislative and workplace etiquette. Some programs provide professional development workshops on résumé writing and interviewing skills.
Orientation also should cover personnel policies at the statehouse.
Inappropriate behavior toward interns has made headlines over the past year, and many states have since made changes to their policies. These include classifying interns as “legislative employees” in workplace harassment policies, prohibiting their attendance at after-hours or off-site events, encouraging them to report inappropriate conduct, and banning legislators and permanent staff from “fraternizing” with them.
Crumbliss played a central role in developing guidelines to address sexual harassment, internships and fraternization after discovering two Missouri lawmakers had crossed the line with interns.
“Every intern should have the same extraordinary experience I did, and these policies will enhance the ability of every intern to be respected and learn in an environment without harassment by those in positions of authority,” he says.
Burdett Loomis, professor emeritus of political science at Kansas University and founder of KU’s Topeka Internship Program, says that interns’ roles need to be clearly defined.
“What’s an appropriate job for an intern?” he asks. Ideally, the Legislature will clarify members’ responsibilities toward interns: to ensure they do substantive work, are treated professionally and observe all parts of the process.
Behnke of Tennessee makes sure to address these issues with students and legislative offices alike. “If it’s outside this work environment, the statehouse—for example, picking up someone’s dry cleaning—then it’s not [appropriate]. We’re taking care of business here—and it’s state business, not personal business.”
And since there are always new legislators, there’s a continual need for education about the role of interns.
The Measure of Success
A good internship produces a graduate who appreciates the value of representative democracy and understands the concepts and practical applications of legislating and governing.
Loomis views the experience as an important part of a liberal arts education and says that successful interns acquire an understanding of government “and the process of legislating and representation at a far more profound level” than their peers who don’t intern.
Behnke sees the legislature’s future in these programs: “There are so many baby boomers who will be retiring soon with their institutional knowledge in different areas. It’s very important to prepare and have interested students coming in.”
And, if internship programs can attract enough of them, the future of the legislative institution will be in good hands, indeed.
Holly South is a policy specialist in NCSL’s Legislative Staff Services Program.