Decoding DC - What Life is Really Like in the Nation's Capital

The Capitol a few days before the shutdown.

Trinh Nguyen Matsui Washington Fellows

October 28, 2013

The start of the federal government shutdown of 2013 coincided with a spike in temperature. I know this for sure, because I celebrated surviving the DC summer humidity with a weekend of beautiful low- to mid-70’s temperatures reminiscent of Berkeley weather. And then the government closed down and the temperatures hiked up, hitting a too-bad-you’re-in-a-suit 90’s as I walked to work in flip flops.

Okay, I’m being a bit melodramatic, but the Washington, D.C. climate did change in more ways than one. To clarify, I will talk about the DC that exists in the downtown area, which is not home to most DC natives. It’s full of commuters from Virginia and Maryland, and loads of new, young professionals from around the U.S. and the world.

I arrived to Washington on August 25th, the first day of the UCDC program. I was a bit too excited about the program, and offered to start my internship the next day, the 26th. I heard DC was a polarizing town of A-type personalities, so I expected to see the severe partisanship and dog-eat-dog world immediately.

And well, I didn’t. I know this part of DC exists. The government shutdown proved it exists. But I really do think most people who go to DC for work prioritize getting stuff done, and getting it done well requires civility. Both Democrats and Republicans are in power in different ways, and progress requires cooperation.

I intern for a bipartisan lobbying and consulting firm specializing in education and workforce issues. The office is split between Democrats and Republicans. While there is friendly teasing over some of the more hot-button issues, my work environment is incredibly positive. Everyone respects each other, likes each other, and works well together. They produce really great things, and I’m lucky to be a part of it.

So after a couple weeks, I began telling my friends and family back home that DC isn’t as polarized as the media portrays it. People may have a partisan agenda, but they pursue it with decorum. The cases that show the extreme disarray and tension in government and politics are salient, but are few relative to the overall picture.

On the final days leading up to the shutdown, nearly everyone was sure it wouldn’t happen. There was no way the President would budge on the Affordable Care Act (ACA), they said, and the GOP knew it. Even if there was a shutdown, they said, it would last a maximum of two days. No one wanted a shutdown, and, for sure, no one wanted a long one.

Tuesday, October 1. I remember hearing some UCDC students toast the shutdown when the clock hit midnight. Furloughed interns for government agencies joked about free vacations. Furloughed federal employees joked about paid vacations. DC businesses started giving out free or discounted “shutdown food” as a business gimmick. The first few days of the shutdown were kind of fun. Everyone just “knew” Congress was going to figure it out and there would be no harm done for anyone outside of those select politicians.

Friday, October 4. People started getting uneasy. “Wait, they haven’t figured anything out yet?” “But they’re gonna figure something out this weekend right? They have to! Veterans can’t visit their war memorials!”

Monday, October 7. People started getting frustrated. “What do you mean nothing happened over the weekend?” “I have to get paid this week or else I can’t pay my bills!”

Tuesday, October 8. People started getting angry. “Congress isn’t even in negotiations for a compromise. They’re in negotiations for negotiations!!!”

Monday, October 14. … “I’ll vote my congressperson out of office if you vote out yours.”

I don’t work on the Hill, and I know few people on the Hill. So maybe both sides of the aisle really thought they were going to “win,” but from what I saw, most people saw the shutdown as a lose/lose for everyone. People were confused, they were tired, and they were more disillusioned with their elected leaders than they thought possible.

During the whole sixteen days of the shutdown, federal employees just wanted to go back to work. And when they finally walked back into their offices, they were faced with weeks of backlog. The IRS even postponed tax season.

Government research agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health, couldn't accept new cancer patients for clinical trials. One friend from New York worked at a non-profit that helped disadvantaged families get food stamps. One particular family would have gotten assistance even with the shutdown, but there was a glitch in the system that prevented them from receiving their benefits. Guess who was the only person able to fix it? Yep—a federal employee not at work.

Politics got even nastier, especially when the office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) leaked ACA negotiation emails from the office of Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH). It was a breach of trust that shocked everyone, including those who expected the worst from Congress.

I thought I was saved from the shutdown because I could still go to work. But work was slow. My firm had given me some awesome assignments, but they had to do with Congressional hearings and legislation. All of that was postponed. Lobbyists and political consultants hated the shutdown. How can a government relations firm do its job when the government isn't open? Bills that should have been passed by the end of this year were tabled, and probably won’t be picked up again until 2014.

My fellow UCDC participants who interned on the Hill and in federal agencies felt like they were wasting their time. They changed their academic schedules in order to have an internship that they were legally barred from doing. Quarter students from other UCs got the worst end of the bargain. They arrived in late September. At this point, some of them have only been at their internships for a week and a half. Some of them only have six weeks (and the lucky ones have seven) to network and build professional relationships at their workplace. When UCDC ends, I would have gotten sixteen weeks.

Even little bits of regular life got harder. One of my furloughed friends decided to work on his UCDC research paper. Too bad the Library of Congress, website included, was shut down. Another friend said Berkeley experienced an earthquake, and he couldn't even check the magnitude because the Department of the Interior website was down.

It’s October 25 now, and the government re-opened on October 17. Federal employees got calls the night of October 16 (or in the early morning of October 17) to come back to work. In the past seven business days, museums opened back up, research centers continued reporting on earthquakes, Congressional hearings are slowly being rescheduled, and DC is like how it was. That’s because when public servants are allowed to do their jobs, they do it well.

Well, most of them. Congress suspended the debt ceiling until February 7, 2014. That Friday is their new deadline for compromise. When you add in all their recesses, that doesn't give them a lot of time to hash out their differences in the Capitol. A lot of already begrudged people on the Hill gained a lot more grudges over the 16 days of the shutdown.

The air in DC has changed once again. Literally. It’s brisk and refreshing; fall is here. In a couple of weeks, restoration will begin on the Capitol, and the dome will be covered in scaffolding for two years. It won’t be a pretty sight, but it makes for a pretty nice symbol of the repair Congress needs.

headshot of Trinh Nguyen

"I am very excited to intern for Penn Hill Group this fall semester. The bipartisan government relations firm specializes in education policy and youth issues. Among their many services is strategic consulting on policy and legislative goals. As an intern, I will be able to assist on projects and research. From this experience, I will study bipartisan advocacy in the legislative process and apply that knowledge toward a future career in public policy. I am also looking forward to working in a small office environment which is located in the Penn Quarter/Chinatown area, home to food festivals and art galleries. The office is only a 10 minute walk from the National Mall! I can't wait!"