Here's the quick and dirty:
What you'll be doing all day:Administrative duties: manning the phones; sorting mail; stuffing envelopes; running errands; giving tours; making coffee; logging faxes; checking voicemails
Writing: constituent form letters; briefing summaries; basic research memos; floor summaries; leg updates; meeting prep
The good and the bad:The benefits: getting to know well-connected staffers; access to information through all sorts of channels including: briefings, e-Dear Colleagues, CRS resources, mailings that come into the office, just sitting around listening to staffers chat; lots of free food; access to cool buildings like the Capitol and the Library of Congress
The drawbacks: long hours; you won't get paid; relying on other interns; you're seen as temporary and highly replaceable; you aren't allowed in staff meetings; there will either be too much or too little work; there's no guarantee you'll be exposed to your area of policy interest
And the longform:The first thing to know about working on the Hill is that every office is completely different. While they generally use the same format and rely on the same services, each office has their own system for their internship program and general operations. My advice, as I've mentioned, is limited to my experience and many former Hill interns will have different and even conflicting experiences. Thus, the best thing you can do to anticipate what it will be like working in a particular Hill office is to speak to someone who has interned in that office before. Use CMC's resources, or if no one from Claremont has interned in that office before, LinkedIn searches will oftentimes turn you up a profile. Connect with them and ask them about their general takeaways, what their duties were like, how much exposure they got to actual policy vs. the photocopier, and where they are now. Regardless of what they tell you about their experience, chances are if they're now a staffer or a policy analyst at a think tank, their intern experience was probably a good one. If they never went back to Washington, you might want to take a look at some other offices.
That said, as I've described above, the general duties of an intern are pretty similar across the board. You'll spend a lot of time dealing with constituents. For most offices, interns are their first point of communication. You're the ones answering the phones, reading the mail, logging the petitions. You'll get intimately familiar with a software called "IQ," where most offices log all constituent correspondence. Most offices will also give you a chance to write some letters to constituents-- freshman offices more so, because many won't have go-to form letters written on every issue yet. Communicating with constituents exposes you to a wide array of issues, keeps you up-to-date on your news, and allows you to get in touch with the people that your office represents. While it can be dull and overwhelming at times, I've always valued how well I've gotten to know the American people by staffing the phones.
Additionally, a lot happens every day on the Hill. There are briefings, hearings, Congressional reports filter through the office. If you're in session, your member will be voting and holding meetings with various advocacy groups. There's no way the staff can keep track of it all, so they'll rely on you for attending many briefings (at many of which, there will be free food!). Also, some offices have interns do floor updates or legislative summaries of what happened the previous day, items that usually go out to all of the staffers and get added to the legislative records. This is a good way to keep up-to-date with the goings-on, get familiar with Congressional procedure, and have your writing read by everyone in the office.
Finally, you will absolutely be running a lot of errands and performing repetitive tasks. Especially in peak tourist season (Spring and Summer), you'll be leading a lot of Capitol tours. You will probably be making coffee at least once a day. You'll spend a lot of time stuffing envelopes. You can expect anywhere from three to six hours of your workday to be spent on tasks that you could have done as a high school freshman. It can be mundane, but your office relies on interns to do these tasks. If you weren't there, they wouldn't be able to function, and they'll thank you for it. Also, most of the staffers started in your shoes, so no one will look down on you.
Also, be warned: Hill hours are long. You should arrive at your office between 8 and 8:30, which usually means leaving your house no later than 7:30. You'll be expected to stay at least until 5:30 or 6, and on the nights you don't have class, you should be staying late. If you get a lunch hour, count yourself very lucky-- most Hill interns eat at their desks and continue to man the phones. And while your supervisors can be understanding if you have a big paper, you shouldn't count on having time to do homework at work.
All of that being said, working on the Hill is demanding, but can be very rewarding. You'll gain exposure to a variety of policy areas that you might never have otherwise noticed. The staffers, if you impress them, will always be willing to help you find a job, and most of them are very well-connected. Additionally, you'll have access to CRS reports and all of the reports that come in the mail to your office. It's more information than a hundred people could process in a lifetime. For some, that can be overwhelming. For others, it can be a dream come true. Make sure you know which type of person you are before you show up for your first day, and strategize to break down the data into manageable chunks so that you learn as much as possible.
Pitfalls I've encountered are few and far between, but can be lethal. The first office I worked in was with a very constituent-minded member. We sourced out a lot of work to our district offices, and our legislative work was minimal. If you're a policy nut, try to avoid offices like this. You'll end up with little work to do, and little exposure to your interest area. Try to find an office of a career politician, or a freshman that is on the Hill to make waves. Also, be wary of other interns; while many of them are wonderful, as with any office, their prior experience will vary. Occasionally, you may end up working on joint projects with interns who don't take their work as seriously as you do. This can be extraordinarily frustrating (but more advice on how to handle situations like that in my next post!).
The first time I went to Washington, I worked at a lobbying firm. Over the summer, I sat down with attorneys and policy advisers alike and asked them for advice on how to get started in Washington. Every single one of them told me, "go to the Hill for at least a summer, if not longer." Most anyone in Washington, whether they work in the public or private sector, view Hill experience as a 'must.' You end up with a decent idea of the policy-making process, plus you can make valuable connections that turn you into an asset for whatever entity you end up working for. While it perhaps isn't the most glamorous or interesting position, Washington is a meritocracy. Climbing the ladder can try your patience, but if you intend on staying in Washington for your career, you won't regret spending time on the Hill.