By Michael Perloff, J.D. ’17
The Capitol Building and its surrounding structures carry the regal magnificence of a European castle. Marble stairs and floors grace the entryways; ceilings vault endless upwards; and stone arches greet entrants passing from one corridor of power to the next. In some ways this majesty is surprising: America came into existence to break free of aristocratic trappings and leaders throughout the country’s history have made homage to the salt of the earth. Yet, despite its elegance, the Capitol does not fully belie national claims of humility; for the building’s sheer grandeur imposes a sense of solemnity on those who walk its hallowed halls.
Or at least it did for me. Before my J-Term internship, I never spent time on Capitol Hill—no prior internships, no family vacations, not even a class trip. This omission was striking because politics fascinates me. As a kid, I remember watching SNL’s Gore-Bush debates with my dad and developing a (bad) knock-off version of Darrell Hammond’s Al Gore. In high school and into college, I followed Barack Obama’s rise with excitement and admiration; and just this past fall, I volunteered to knock doors for Hillary Clinton. The experience of finally approaching the doors of the Capitol was thrilling; it felt like arriving at the set of a movie, only a lot nerdier.
Somewhat overawed, I walked into Congressman Bobby Scott’s office and met with David Dailey, my supervising attorney and the congressman’s legislative director. From the start, David made me feel part of the team. He included me in the weekly conference call and asked me to come with him and another staffer to grab lunch. He also invited me to join the rest of the staff as we introduced ourselves to the new members of the Virginia congressional delegation—an aspect of Southern hospitality that won bipartisan plaudits. Over the week, other staffers opened up, too. Paige Schwartz, a legislative assistant from Virginia turned to me after every inside joke to give context; Evan Chapman, a more senior legislative assistant, made sure to stop by my desk to talk about his book list and our shared search for vegetarian restaurants in Boston; Press Secretary Gabby Brown talked with me about the her job responsibilities as she took me from press conference to press conference; and Joni Ivey, the Chief of Staff, made sure to invite me to events when she had extra tickets. By the end of the first few days, I felt part of the team, someone who was valued and respected rather than simply an eager young person in the big city.
My sense of inclusion also stemmed from the substantive assignments I received. Within my first week, David and Rep. Scott assigned me a time-sensitive project. The task required extensive research on federal and state statutory interpretation and resulted in an 8-page memorandum. Rep. Scott checked in with me personally several times throughout the week, asking me for my legal conclusions and asking me questions about the finer points of my legal interpretation. The opportunities to advise a congressman directly was thrilling; it made me feel useful and gave me confidence I could make an impact as a lawyer.
The following week, my work turned to criminal justice reform. While I had enjoyed the previous week’s work, criminal justice was the issue area I planned to target by interning with Rep. Scott. My interest in that issue area had grown during law school, to the point that I plan on devoting myself to criminal justice reform after graduation. When I met with David Harris, managing director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, to discuss this passion, he suggested I work with Bobby Scott, whom David described as one of Congress’ most aggressive advocates for eliminating the draconian aspects of federal criminal law. I collaborated with David to secure an internship with Rep. Scott not only to learn about politics generally but also to study the battles for criminal justice reform at the highest levels.
I explored this issue through three projects. First, I reviewed several criminal justice bills that Rep. Scott planned to introduce during the upcoming legislative cycle. My job was to ensure that the bills, as drafted, achieved their policy goals and, if they did, write letters encouraging other legislators to support them. In completing this assignment, I analyzed six bills and wrote a 5-page memo analyzing the loopholes in one of them. I also wrote six letters advocating for the bills. This experience honed my legal writing skills, allowing me to make strong rhetorical cases for legislation while explaining legal provisions in ways non-lawyers could understand. More importantly, though, the assignment introduced me to federal sentencing law and helped me appreciate the consequences of several disturbing statutes. One of the most jarring parts of the code is 18 U.S.C. 924(c), a provision that, among other things, imposes a 25-year mandatory minimum on anyone who possesses a firearm in multiple incidents of drug dealing. Reading about the implications of this provision was chilling and helped me appreciate the stakes in reforming federal criminal law.
My second project was to analyze and reorganize the SAFE Justice Act. Rep. Scott’s most ambitious legislative effort, the SAFE Justice Act is an omnibus bill that would, among other things, eliminate a slew of mandatory minimums, increase prosecutorial accountability, and create new mental health programs. The bill is over 100 pages long and Rep. Scott introduced it in 2015 only to have it pushed aside by a less progressive reform bill. Rep. Scott plans to put it forward again in the new session of Congress. My task was to revise the bill to ensure the provisions followed a logically cohesive structure. As I worked on the bill, I joined David in several meetings with its key supporters, including one of the leaders of a national advocacy organization, a staffer for a Democratic co-sponsor, and a staffer for a potential Republican ally. After these meetings, David took me aside to explain some of the concerns about the original version of the bill and the obstacles that lay ahead for this draft. These conversations taught me about the battle for committee positions, how Nancy Pelosi has lead the Democratic caucus, the influence of advocacy groups, and the way a centrist bill can harm a more progressive one. Taken together, the conversations helped me better understand the interests that move major players in congressional advocacy.
My third task was to analyze a recent set of federal guidelines pertaining to the Death and Custody Reporting Act (DCRA). Enacted in 2014, DCRA requires the Department of Justice to collect data on homicides committed by state, local, and federal law enforcement officials. Last fall, DOJ promulgated a set of guidelines on how it would implement the statue; however the guidelines won little praise from Rep. Scott and the other lead sponsors of the Act. DOJ responded by publishing another set of guidelines in December and my role was to review these guidelines to note what DOJ improved and what new problems it created. The result of my analysis was a four-page memo that will provide the basis for a possible comment that Rep. Scott may submit critiquing the guidelines. This project allowed me to explore the challenge of turning a statute into a policy and the tension between branches when that process goes awry.
As I completed these projects, Rep. Scott and David made sure that I got a full taste of life on the Hill. On many afternoons, Rep. Scott would invite me to join him for a press conference and talk politics with me on the way back to his office. Other times, David would ensure I had a seat at events—including one closed-door meeting between legislative staffers and a Pennsylvania department of correction official who has led the movement for penal reform in his state. I had lunch with a labor counsel for the minority staff of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, enjoyed long conversations with a civil rights counsel on that committee, and sat in on a hiring meeting for someone who would assist with Rep. Scott’s criminal justice portfolio. Throughout it all, the staff left everything in the open and treated me like a colleague.
My final day coincided with the Inauguration and I watched from the window as President Obama boarded Marine One, his term in office complete. Most of the day I spent working on a final memo—this one on election reform—but I still made time to reflect on the moment I was witnessing. Like everyone else in the office, I felt nostalgic as I watched the president fly off, remembering how his election coincided with my first year of college and his presidency with the first chapter of my adult life. With law school graduation approaching, that chapter has ended and the next one, the one where I am no longer a professional in training but a professional in practice, is rapidly approaching. My experience this January made me feel ready for my new beginning; it gave me confidence that I could go to a new office, make friends with my fellow staffers, and work quickly and effectively to contribute to a common goal. Walking down the grand staircase and exiting through a highly arched door for the last time, I no longer saw the Capitol Hill compound as intimidating; instead, it was a reminder that I was ready for what would come next.