It’s the classic intern question, what we ask each other in an effort to figure out who among us is spending the summer getting coffee and who is briefing members of Congress (I have friends that have done each). Behind fancy agency names and official sounding titles, there’s a gaping uncertainty about the purpose and efficacy of eight-week interns, regardless of the organization at which they work.

"The Center for American Progress newsroom has no parallel on the national stage." -Politico

So what do I do in the Government Affairs department at the Center for American Progress (CAP)? I obsessively follow political publications and Senate floor blogs so I can send out a twice-daily congressional capsule to the staff. I watch hearings on issues as diverse as gun trafficking and free trade agreements, and write memos detailing the concerns voiced by congressional members. I pull together the previous work we’ve done on say, rural education, so that varied recommendations are available in one document. And yes, I sometimes stuff envelopes and fill out spreadsheets -something that, when I say it, usually evokes a little sigh of relief from the under-appreciated Hill intern in the room.

We all know where we work, but knowing the actual substance of each other’s work is quite a different thing. Similarly, knowing what CAP is and knowing what CAP does are very different things. CAP occupies a unique and useful position within the policy sphere, but that’s not something that you can tell just by looking at its website. A quick Google search brings up this description:

“Center for American Progress: A think tank offering policy proposals, talking points, events, news and columns”

Okay, so you…write things? The action-oriented part of me cringes at the words “think tank,” because they sound so ineffectual. Why, I asked myself, would somebody spend their time doing research and writing papers if they’re not actually going to GO anywhere? Why create something and then just put it into the endless black hole of other products your company has made? (All of this is said with a loving, but bemused acknowledgement of the would-be academics among us.) I didn’t understand, but accepted the internship thinking that I would get to be around brilliant people who were well versed in their field.

I’m incredibly lucky, because I unwittingly ended up at the think-tank-that-is-not-a-think-tank, an organization that some employees lovingly refer to as an “action tank.” CAP’s resources are split 50-50 between policy formulation and communications – a ratio that is unheard of in more academic institutions like Brookings. CAP is constantly relevant, responding to the existing debates in Washington, and anticipating and creating other debates before they happen.

My department, Government Affairs, is especially unique. Other think tanks don’t really have an equivalent, because they don’t have such an emphasis on promoting their policy to the hill. Most of the GA employees are registered lobbyists, but they lobby for progressive ideas, not corporate interests. They are well versed on Hill practices and know Hill staffers. As a consequence, they are incredibly capable at knowing which paper to send where, which expert to send in for a briefing, and what feedback and strategies to give on a bill. They keep each of the policy teams informed on congressional happenings, and ensure that CAP releases timely products that are needed by policy makers stretched for resources or lacking in expertise.

That sense of relevancy, of purpose, is most fascinating. My boss keeps a sign outside of her office, made of four pieces of taped-together printer paper, that asks “TO WHAT END?” And everything has an end. CAP, especially through its communications and government affairs departments, is incredibly important in empowering and shaping the message of the progressive cause.

In a way, working at an “action tank” was exactly what I wanted this summer. CAP gives me a sense of efficacy paired with the ability to interact with high-level policy concepts. It allows me to learn from experts in specific fields while maintaining a generalist perspective. And it asks me to examine congressional happenings to a painstaking degree, while also keeping enough distance to see the political scene as a whole.

But this is just the beginning. In the coming weeks, expect to see examples of CAP’s work, interviews with its policy makers and advocates, and photos from days at the job. DC has a new crisis to deal with every day, and I’ve still got three weeks left.

Photo credit: Politico
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