In April 1999 I got the telephone call I’d been waiting for. The assistant press secretary to Senator Edward M. Kennedy wanted to inform me that I’d been accepted as a summer intern in one of Kennedy’s several Washington, D.C., offices. I was assigned right where I wanted to be: the health, education, labor, and pensions staff, which wrote legislation and policy for Kennedy to bring to the Senate floor. Maybe I was naïve, but I was convinced that being so close to the action would get me in on it.
My first morning on the job I arrived at 8:45 – fifteen minutes early – and the only person there was some guy reading the New York Times. Soon the staff assistants wandered in and started telling me and the other interns what to do. Most congressional interns spend their time guiding tourists, answering phones, and responding to mail from constituents. My daily chores didn’t turn out to be much more exciting: I picked up mail, photocopied the previous day’s press packet, and delivered memos to staff offices. Occasionally I was actually asked to write a memo; those were the only times I felt I was doing anything meaningful.
So I had a lot of free time, but I couldn’t just sit around. I wanted to learn something, to make an impression. I was especially interested in working on the Patients’ Bill of Rights, legislation that Kennedy had been pushing for more than a year. The bill aimed to set health maintenance organizations straight: to emphasize that health care is more important than corporate profits. In case I might get the chance to help out, I read all the background information that Kennedy’s health office would give me.
In late June, Kennedy brought the bill to the Senate floor by offering it as an amendment to an agriculture appropriations bill. The Republicans in the Senate had been backing down from their promise to debate this bill, but now they had little choice; they wanted to pass that agriculture bill. Majority Leader Trent Lott scheduled it for debate the following week, leaving Kennedy’s staff only a few days to prepare for the summer’s most important political event. Michael Myers, chief of the health, education, labor, and pensions staff – the same man who’d been reading the New York Times that first day – came into the office looking stressed and said, "I need someone to do some serious research on HMOs." Before he even finished the sentence I said, "I’ll do it." I was in the right place at the right time.
Over the next three days, I spent every waking minute researching annual profits for HMOs, the salaries of CEOs, and statistics showing that HMOs planned to cut off more than 500,000 patients over the next year. I figured out cost-ratio losses – how much HMOs spend on administrative expenses and salaries compared to what they spent on patient services. I was shocked by some of the things I found. Oxford Health Plan, an HMO based in Connecticut, for example, pulled out of an entire county because of slumping profits, even though its CEO’s annual compensation was more than $30 million a year.
The night before my deadline, I was the last staffer to leave the office. It was surreal to walk through the empty hallways of the Senate building, with the only sound that of my footsteps on the marble floor. The next week, I listened with pride to Kennedy debate the bill on the Senate floor. To make his case, he cited my re- search. I felt enormously proud and lucky: how many undergraduates have heard their work used on the floor of the U.S. Senate? Unfortunately, though, Kennedy’s bill was eventually defeated by a watered-down Republican one that, in my view, protects HMOs instead of patients.
On the last day of my internship, the office threw a party for departing students. While everyone was devouring pizza, Michael Myers gave me a lesson on how the debates over the Patients’ Bill of Rights had revealed the divergent interests of the two parties. Republicans had chosen to represent wealthy businesses, he explained, while Kennedy and other Democrats had represented ordinary Am-erican people. I know that explanation sounds simplified and idealistic, but I believe it to be true.
Then Myers paid me the ultimate political compliment. "I hope," he said, "you’re never on the opposite side of a battle I have to go into."
Jonathan L. Hull is a political science and organizational behavior and management concentrator from Canterbury, New Hampshire.