For the last six months, soon-to-be South Dakota State University graduate Jonathon Sundet, a Brookings native, had been working as a congressional intern in Washington, D.C. From January to March, Sundet worked in South Dakota Rep. Dusty Johnson’s office as a student intern, and from May to July, he worked as an intern in South Dakota Sen. John Thune’s office. After a busy few months in the nation’s Capitol, Sundet had some time to reflect on his experience.
“I’d imagine a lot of people think interns just sit there and answer phone calls,” Sundet said. “That’s part of the job, and while you do have to do that kind of busy work, you also get to do a lot of policy shadowing.”
While Sundet was working in Washington, one of the major bills signed into law was the Ocean Shipping Reform Act, which provided the Federal Maritime Commission with the regulatory power to support American exporters, protect consumers and establish reciprocal trade opportunities to reduce the U.S.’s long-standing trade imbalance with countries like China.
Both Thune and Johnson were instrumental in getting this bipartisan bill to the president’s desk.
“That was really exciting to see,” Sundet said. “You get to learn a lot about the policy and that was the largest change to maritime laws in a few decades.
“To see our representatives at the forefront of that was really cool,” Sundet added. “I’m proud of representatives who go to D.C. and work for South Dakotans.”
Sundet spent the majority of his time inside the Capitol, working in Thune’s D.C. office. While some interns will only see their representative once or twice throughout their time on Capitol Hill, Sundet said they were able to interact with Thune regularly.
“For Thune’s office, it truly is that kind of South Dakota environment,” Sundet said. “You get to see Thune at least every week going through his office. It was very casual, very welcoming. I was very appreciative of that.”
Outside of Thune and Johnson, Sundet said he would sometimes run into some of America’s political heavyweights at the Capitol, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“Certainly, he does not know who I am nor would he be able to recognize me, but I ran into him so many times,” Sundet said.
A sizeable part of the intern’s responsibilities is to give tours of the Capitol to constituents.
“Typically, interns will take over (the tours) and bring them throughout the Capitol,” Sundet said. “It’s such a beautiful building and obviously very historical.”
Other assignments include talking to legislative assistants and handling the various issues that come up. Often, interns will be asked to write up memos for subcommittee meetings or for the legislators themselves.
Sundet remembers when news broke that TikTok, a Chinese social media company, let employees in China “repeatedly access nonpublic data about U.S. TikTok users.” Senators were concerned that the collected data was being shared with the Chinese government.
“I got the opportunity to write a memo, present it to Sen. Thune and have him sign off on it,” Sundet said. “So that was pretty cool.”
Sundet also was involved in a bill that had a direct effect on South Dakota. Thune and Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso introduced a bill, the Black Hills Forest Protection and Jobs Preservation Act, which required the U.S. Forest Service to carry out forest management projects, including “thinning of overly dense timber stands in the Black Hills National Forest, which reduces wildfire hazards and risk of future insect infestations.”
“I got to do a memo on this too, which was really cool,” Sundet said. “As an intern, it’s very cool to see the way policy can shape South Dakota.”
Of course, not all intern work is glamorous, as Sundet says. Answering phone calls for the representative is still a significant part of the intern’s daily duties. Some of the calls can take a few unexpected turns.
“People are certainly not calling because they’re happy,” Sundet said. “There’s certainly a disproportionate amount of people that are calling because they’re unhappy.”
Because Thune is in a leadership position—senate minority whip—interns will field calls from people all over the U.S. The majority of those calls—Sundet roughly estimates 75%—involve “unconstructive criticism at an elevated voice level” (i.e. screaming).
“You’ll get so many calls from people that are not even from South Dakota,” Sundet said. “We try to cut it short—especially if they are from out of state—so we can get back to listening to constituents.”
One of the more memorable phone calls had Sundet “learning” about a far-out conspiracy theory on how politicians are actually reptiles.
“So I got to hear about that for 45 minutes,” Sundet said.
Outside of the phone calls, one of the most memorable moments for Sundet was when they got to have breakfast with Thune.
“In the middle of our internship, we had an hour with him of just conversation,” Sundet said. “We talked about sports—obviously SDSU being better than the University of South Dakota—and he told us pretty cool stories.
“I went into this internship experience knowing politicians, and so I already had that feeling that (politicians) aren’t celebrities—too many people forget that,” Sundet added. “They are also people, they’re just like us.”
At SDSU, Sundet was an at-large senator for the Students’ Association while majoring in political science and minoring in public relations. He will graduate with his associate degree later this summer.
“SDSU has a culture of success and growth,” Sundet said. “I was able to earn these internships because of the foundation SDSU provides for its students. The professors in the political science department were a key component of attaining my accomplishments, too. I’m extremely thankful for my time at SDSU, and I’ll always be a proud Jackrabbit.”
After college, Sundet hopes to go into politics.
“I enjoy being able to help shape good policy,” Sundet added.
Image for Political Science (B.A./B.S.)