OP-ED: What I Saw on Capitol Hill—Wyoming Congressional Intern Speaks Out

Angry constituents, hyper partisanship and career politicians rule the day (Part 1)

  • Published In: Politics
  • Last Updated: Sep 28, 2022

Rachelle Trujillo, a junior at the University of Wyoming, visits the U.S. Library of Congress on the eve of her first day as an intern for U.S. Sen. John Barrasso. (Courtesy photo from Rachelle Trujillo)

By Rachelle Trujillo

Special to the Wyoming Truth

The entire U.S. Capitol was buzzing the day the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. I was there for it.

I stood at the window with my fellow staffers in the office of U.S. Sen. John Barrasso (R., Wyo.), watching protestors march up Constitution Avenue toward the Supreme Court Building on First Street. We closely monitored our emails, receiving instructions from U.S. Capitol Police who told us not to bring anyone, whether they were on official business or not, onto Capitol grounds. We were instructed to avoid the Supreme Court and keep our congressional badges concealed as we exited the Dirksen Senate Office Building, lest protestors become violent.

As far as I knew, there never was a direct threat against congressional offices. But our building was located a few blocks from the steps of the Supreme Court, so if violence were to arise, it would likely spill over to us.  We left early on June 24, but not before fielding dozens of calls from people nationwide. Some called to celebrate the Supreme Court’s decision, while others expressed their opposition. Regardless of where callers stood on abortion rights, they were all incredibly intense in expressing their opinions. I spent several hours answering phones before we were directed to close for the day, and by that time, I couldn’t wait to get home.

As an intern for Sen. John Barrasso (R., Wyo.), Rachelle Trujillo spent many hours in the Senate gallery of the U.S. Capitol last summer, listening to senators debate pending legislation. (Wyoming Truth photo by Rachelle Trujillo) 

It’s one thing to read about government in a textbook or watch political coverage on TV. But it’s another story watching government in action from the Senate gallery. During the transformational summer of 2022—when the constitutional right to abortion was eliminated, bipartisan gun control talks took shape and President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act into law—I was fortunate to have a front row seat to American democracy as a congressional intern.

It was not a pretty picture. From constituents who berated us to partisan speeches and young staffers who kept the government functioning, I received a real-time education in government and saw the disconnect between it and the people it serves.

The truth about contacting elected officials

I came to Washington, D.C., as a relative political novice. I am a Casper native and junior at the University of Wyoming, majoring in international studies. My passion for politics started during my junior year at Kelly Walsh High School, when I competed at Model United Nations and represented Ukraine on the Security Council. As a senior in 2020, I represented Mexico and was named “Best Delegate” on the Women’s Right’s Council. I’ve always been drawn to the idea of being a part of a system that has the capacity to do good and change lives. And I sought opportunities to do so. In the fall of 2021, I landed an internship in Sen. Barrasso’s state office in Casper, where I worked 20 hours a week while completing my associate degree at Casper College.

In that office, I interacted with constituents who faced issues with federal agencies, such as the Veterans Administration, IRS and Social Security Administration. I helped secure missing stimulus checks for people who needed the money most and steered constituents experiencing legal or financial hardship to potential resources. I enjoyed my time there but felt called to apply for a three-month internship in the senator’s Washington, D.C., office. Capitol Hill internships are highly competitive and fiercely coveted; they are seen as the first step to a career in politics or public service.

I was elated to secured the internship! On Capitol Hill, I helped prepare legislative briefing papers for Sen. Barrasso, assisted his press team with constituent outreach, answered phones, sorted mail and gave tours of the Capitol. It was a special experience, one for which I will be forever grateful—especially to all who were a part of it. But I learned early on that the position is not for the thin-skinned.

Callers often criticized me for working in Sen. Barrasso’s office, both Republicans and Democrats alike, and they vented all their frustrations with the government to me and my fellow interns. I can’t say it doesn’t make sense; we were the first and truly only audience for individuals eager to voice their opinions to elected officials. Still, maintaining a professional demeanor often left me feeling like a customer service representative in a call center. People think that if something is wrong, making a fuss will fix it. This isn’t how congressional offices work.

Pictured above is the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., where congressional intern Rachelle Trujillo fielded calls from voters nationwide on issues ranging from abortion rights to gun reform. (Wyoming Truth photo by Rachelle Trujillio)

The calls regarding Roe v. Wade were a small percentage of the heated calls I fielded. In June, the majority of the Wyoming constituents who contacted the office voiced support for gun control laws—of some kind—after the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas that killed 19 children and two adults. We also heard from people across the country who thought Republicans posed a roadblock to gun reform legislation. Angry callers somehow saw me, an intern for a Republican senator, as bearing responsibility for these tragedies. Some took it to extremes, telling me that I personally had blood on my hands or that they hoped I would be gunned down by an AR-15, along with the other staffers in our office.

Callers spoke down to me during the Inflation Reduction Act debates, questioning my intelligence and whether  I knew how the economy worked. Strangers consistently (and often incorrectly) assumed my personal beliefs on everything from the Honoring Our PACT Act of 2022 that expanded health care benefits for veterans exposed to burn pits to the FBI raid on President Trump’s Mar-o-Lago home. Many of the words and phrases I heard in these conversations are too obscene to publish. 

We received between 20 to 50 calls per day, usually half from in state and half from out. I’m grateful to live in a country where we have freedom of speech and the ability to contact our representatives, but a congressional office is not the customer service department of a big-box store.

Interns and staffers are permitted to shut down these abusive conversations, per office policy. I lost track of how many times I said, through clenched teeth, “Sir, if we can’t have a respectful  conversation, I’m going to end the call.” Sometimes we even transferred nasty callers to Capitol police.  

I couldn’t help but wonder: Is the political divide so deep that we have lost our ability to empathize and communicate rationally with each other? Have we become so detached from our humanity that we can shamelessly shout slurs and lay unfair blame on college students looking to build their resumes?

The public doesn’t seem to understand that congressional staffers don’t always hold the same beliefs as the senators and representatives—or “members,” as they’re called on Capitol Hill—for whom they work. And it’s unrealistic to expect it. What’s more, the person who answers the phone is most likely an intern or staff assistant—certainly not the members themselves. We are there to document and condense 20-minute calls into a one or two-sentence summary for the member to review. It’s the only possible way to organize the hundreds of calls and messages received each week. While members absolutely want constituent input, it’s impossible for us to share every message in its entirety. Therefore, I’m of the opinion that a member will never know as much as the entry-level staff knows about the extent of his or her constituents’ concerns.

Welcome to democracy.

Check back tomorrow for part two of Rachelle Trujllo’s op-ed about her experience as a congressional intern.

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