Washington Intern Experience

July 30, 2001 -- On any given summer day, 10,000 interns are busy at work on Capitol Hill. They answer phones, sort mail, and give tours for members of Congress and various federal officials.

But there is a lot more to the intern experience than many of them anticipated.

Rubbing Powerful Elbows

When the sun goes down, the interns — mostly college kids — learn about another part of the Washington scene. Just a few blocks away from the apartment where Chandra Levy had been living when she disappeared May 1, interns crowd into Washington's many clubs and bars.

It is one of the arenas in Washington where the young mix with the powerful, and each has to figure out how to deal with the other — without set rules or training. For many female interns, it is also the first time they attract the attention of older men.

"Coming to Washington, D.C., has been quite a culture shock for me, because I'm from a rural town," one intern told ABCNEWS' 20/20.

In many cases, ambitious young people are swept away by the experience. "There's something that affects 20-year-old idealistic women on their way to Washington," says syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin, who was once a Capitol Hill intern herself. "It's a romantic flu."

Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, who runs one of the biggest, best-organized intern programs on Capitol Hill, says, "It would be foolish to assume that my college students go home and tuck themselves into bed every night."

He cautions his interns — particularly the female ones — to be careful. "This is a difficult place to test the ropes," he says, "and sometimes bad things happen."

Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places

Sessions says interns should be off-limits to members of Congress and their staff, but 20/20 spoke to several interns who said they were frequently hit on by older staffers. "It's a meat market here," says Mary, a 21-year-old intern who asked that her last name not be used.

"I'm surprised at how many older men will hit on younger women," says Mary, a college student from Michigan. "I see guys come in and hit on women who are 20, who are 45 or 50 years old."

Danielle, also a 21-year-old intern from Michigan, says she has a stack of business cards from the many congressional staffers who have hit on her.

She says she hasn't been approached by any congressmen, but admits that many of her colleagues find the politicians extremely attractive.

"They're kind of like gods," she says "They're on TV, they're really nice, and they know how to talk to people."

Rules of the Game

There are almost no rules regarding romance between interns and politicians.

One 19-year-old intern assigned to a federal agency says a mid-level federal official invited her to a museum and then to a movie. The official, she says, even joked about the Chandra Levy case and talked openly about other dating experiences.

"I was just thinking to myself, 'You know this is really stupid,'" the intern told 20/20. "The feeling in my stomach was not a particularly pleasant one."

But there was little she could do about the disquieting experience. There are handbooks for interns, but they're not widely distributed and while they warn of sexual harassment, there is no hotline to call for help or advice.

"The women who go to Washington are like I was," says Malkin, "nice, young, naive girls who have this pure awe for the people who are supposed to serve us in the Capitol."

Prompted by the Levy case, Malkin recently wrote of her own uncomfortable experience with a congressman who offered to let her live in his apartment.

"I was so flattered and humbled — what 20-year-old girl wouldn't be?" she says. "But it wasn't until the congressman's wife called me up … that I finally got some sense knocked into me."

Partly as a result of the Levy case, which many Washington interns are closely following, there is a growing realization that maybe Washington needs a code of conduct, not only for the interns but also for the people they work with.

"A 20-year-old is going to dress like a 20-year-old and she shouldn't be persecuted for doing that," says Malkin. "It's [the] men who should have the primary responsibility of making sure they keep it in their pants because they're supposed to embody the virtues of public service and public life."

Top Stories

Top Stories

Top Stories

Top Stories

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events