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Lunch time on Capitol Hill. The cafeterias at the House and Senate office buildings fill to capacity with fresh, ruddy faces, clumping together at tables of six and seven. The suits are slightly wrinkled, and some of the skirts flirt with Melrose length. But the hair is perfect. With calculated disinterest, the interns steal glances around the room as they settle into their seats.

Toying with their salads, two particularly soignée interns (wardrobe by Laura Ashley and Talbots, respectively), are just getting to know each other—perhaps drawn to one another by their shared prep-school pedigree. I am dressed down, so out of place that they totally ignore me as I listen in.

What I hear is not the sharp-tongued policy debate of budding politicos, but final-exam horror stories. “My mom is always getting mad at me for pulling all-nighters. She says I should just keep up with my classes,” one political debutante drawls. “But I still get good grades, and I just remember how much fun I had those nights I wasn’t studying.”

Parallel conversations are going on all over the room. Like kids in a high-school home room, the interns look painfully self-conscious and deeply bored. The difference is that in high school everyone wanted to get the hell out. Here, in the land of summer interns, the empty hours are irrelevant: Just being here is magic enough. And when they graduate, these kids will come running back for more.

Washington’s exploitation of the young and unpaid reaches its apex on Capitol Hill, where every year some 6,000 interns answer the calls and stamp the franked mail of their very busy congressmen. Over the generations, the Hill internship rite of passage has developed into a culture of its own—playing dress-up, eating government-subsidized frozen yogurt, and absorbing the norms—and self-importance—of the ruling class.

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Kimberly McClintock can’t get over how lucky she is to be here. Along with nine of her classmates from Texas Christian University in Forth Worth, McClintock was dispatched to the Capitol for a spring semester of work and wonder. She landed in the office of Rep. Bill Archer (R-Texas), the powerful chairman of the House committee that proudly ushered in the draconian welfare bill. Like her boss, McClintock has a knack for spinning wretched realities into golden yarns.

“Answering the mail’s been a real interesting part of the job,” she says. “I learned so much from the task. Answering the phones was a lot of fun, too.” She sees her unpaid labor as “something I could give back for all the work [Archer] had done for my district.” Already McClintock knows how to keep a straight face when feeding the media screaming bullshit.

Looking back on her tenure in Washington, McClintock says the experience “greatly exceeded” her expectations. “I was extremely fortunate to work here,” she says, before resorting to Washington’s hoariest cliché: “It’s really what you make of it.”

In the endless fluorescent hallways of congressional office buildings, interns like McClintock work very hard to not look like interns. She recommends carrying a pencil and paper at all times, to “look more professional.” But try as they might, interns are instantly recognizable. “They’re the ones who still look excited,” says one former House committee intern.

Going incognito is particularly tough when your badge gives you away. On the Hill, everyone has a field-trip name tag, a shiny lapel pin, or—most popular of all—a government ID badge. And the color of your badge dictates the degree of that most precious of Washington commodities: access. “If you were yellow,” reports former intern Dan Dovdavany, “it screamed ‘intern.’” The real staffers have green badges, but the seasoned vets tuck them into a discreet pocket.

Khaki chinos are not only ubiquitous, they’re a dead giveaway, says former intern and current committee staffer Darren Bearson: “Permanent staffers wear suits.” And for the record, Bearson informs me in his balmy baritone, he never wore a badge—not as an intern, and not now.

Like lower castes everywhere, interns have their own hierarchy. The House side is better than the Senate side, because senators’ larger staffs leave even less work for the interns. That doesn’t mean fewer interns, mind you. Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) will employ 100 of them this summer. “On the Senate side, it’s not uncommon to have six interns opening mail all day,” says one former intern for Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.). He spent the entire summer sorting Moynihan’s mail. Never did he actually meet the senator.

Dovdavany thinks he had better luck, interning on the House side for retiring Rep. Susan Molinari, a Republican from Staten Island. All the same, “I happened to be doing the most meaningless of tasks,” he says, detailing his experiences kowtowing to cranky constituents. But like most interns, he emphatically insists it was worthwhile. When I press for an explanation, he waxes poetic about the heady Contract With America days, and says much of the thrill came from being part of the “majority.”

As in the rest of the country, you get more respect if you’re of the majority. Here at the Capitol, of course, “minority” is Hillspeak for members of the Democratic party. Minority committee staffers are out of the loop, sidelined for two years in dark, depressing offices. Meanwhile, interns from majority committees have access to stocked fridges and mahogany desks.

But all interns ultimately spend their summers perfecting the art of opening 8-and-a-half-by-11 envelopes and signing the boss’ signature with the pen machine. Rationalizing this toil as worthwhile demands an impressive cache of denial, which must be stroked daily in order to survive. Interns take some solace in sitting at least a couple of (small) steps up the Hill hierarchy. They rank well above pages, for example—those well-connected high-school kids who run around delivering documents all day in government-issue ties. But pages are nowhere near as contemptible as the dreaded Close Up kids—busloads of youngsters shipped in from Anywhere, U.S.A., to find out how a bill becomes a law.

“You’re running down the hall to give your boss his lunch, and some gang of Close Up kids is clogging up the hallway,” remembers one former intern, with practiced disdain. “They’re always underfoot.”

Those daily irritants, along with the numbing routine of stacking and shuffling paper, are interrupted by important stuff like lunch. “Lunch and elevator rides were constant star-gazing,” Dovdavany recalls. Now and then, a particularly bold (or clueless) intern slips into one of the “Members Only” elevators. Once safely on board, that intern chooses either to ogle shamelessly or buck up and pretend to be the nation’s youngest senator. The important thing is to get a good story to embellish and savor for the rest of your tenure. If you can say you took an eight-second Capitol Subway ride next to Sonny Bono, well, isn’t that reward enough for an entire summer of unpaid faxing?

And there are perks. This is Congress, after all. After a couple of weeks, interns learn that at any given time a dozen well-catered receptions are going down somewhere nearby. One young leftist remembers gliding into an NRA luncheon for an imported beer between trivial errands. And McClintock had lovely times at intern soirees thrown by the Texas State Society.

“I just wanted to be on the Hill. I didn’t really expect to do real work,” says one intern, summing up the experience.

After the long, hard days, interns flock en masse to places such as Tortilla Coast, My Brother’s Place, Capitol Brewing Company, and other establishments operating almost exclusively on the intern tab. There they cash in on the biggest perk of all—a bar full of intoxicated fellow interns, with the same blind ambitions, low alcohol tolerance, and stunted sexual repertoires.

Before they know it, they are waving goodbye to Washington. But they’ll be back one day to claim their well-deserved green badges and do slightly less menial work for slightly more money—with the same game-show smile.CP