This past semester, I did an internship with the League of Women Voters of Washington (LWVWA), working with their Energy and Climate Change lobbyist at the Washington state legislature in Olympia, WA. I had sought out this opportunity because I was tired of sitting in classrooms being told what happened in the “real world,” and wanted to actually go out and experience this presumed “real world.” As a former homeschooler, I am used to self-guided learning and direct experience; I wanted to better understand the legislative process, and my background fit this internship perfectly. Well, I wanted an education… and boy, did I get one!
My initial expectation was that I would go in, learn about bills, watch legislators debate them, and eventually bills would become laws. After all, this is Washington State, not Washington D.C. We elected mature people who used reason and logic to be the best representatives possible. Right?
Oh, how naive I was.
With the guidance of the LWVWA lobby team and, especially, my mentor, I jumped into state politics with both feet. This support was a particularly valuable part of the internship experience, because without it I would have been lost almost immediately. My internship mentor helped me filter out what bills were likely to move out of committee and which were dead on arrival – the future of a bill seems to be decided based on a mix of the sponsor’s influence, the party of the committee chair, the financial implications of the bill, and its popularity with the public. Attending meetings with her, I learned what questions to ask a legislator and when to turn to legislators from outside your district. She also explained the internal politics of the various lobbying groups and how organizations with seemingly similar interests can be on opposing sides. This was perhaps the most valuable insight I gained from her mentoring, since these backdoor dynamics cannot be picked up on as readily as the public political posturing of the legislators.
The Washington state legislature is almost as ugly as Congress. I say “almost” because, without the intense scrutiny Congressional members are subjected to, state legislators display a slightly greater willingness to reach across the aisle and work together. Still, what bipartisan support exists extends only as far as non-monetary issues. As soon as a bill impacts the budget, it faces opposition from the other side of the aisle. Republicans, the presumptive party of small government, have no interest in increasing state revenue – despite our current budget deficit as well as a court order to fully fund K-12 education following a ruling that inadequate funding was unconstitutional (and for which the legislature is being fined on a daily basis – to be paid with monies from the General Fund). Democrats, trying to address the needs of state agencies and public programs, fight most spending cuts.
In addition to the political posturing, there are the “make me look good” bills introduced by legislators up for reelection; the “striker” amendments, which can turn a bill into something entirely different while retaining its name; the lobbyists that are there every time, such that you learn to smile or groan internally when you hear their name called to testify; and the times during testimony you get so angry you feel you must say something. It is fiercely competitive, and yet so high profile a location that you have to watch every word you speak, knowing that a misstep could come back to haunt you.
And yet, I loved it. I loved watching the back-and-forth, and learning about the many bills being heard at the same time as my bills of interest. I loved hearing testimonies, and getting the chance to testify on subjects I care about. I loved meeting lobbyists, staff, and legislators, and hearing their take on events. It challenged my social skills, stimulated my brain, and – given the parking situation and my bag – exercised my body, each and every day. Perhaps most importantly, I learned that politics matters, and it matters to me. Every stressful interaction, each frustrating event, all the hassle of getting from one place to another – it was all worth it. This was, without a doubt, the most useful and inspiring internship I have ever done.