“Someday you can run for office.” It’s a brief comment that members of Congress have said to legions of interns who pass through the halls season after season.
But small moments of encouragement make the biggest difference. That’s what Rep. Jim Langevin says looking back at his first exposure working at the Capitol as an intern for the late Sen. Claiborne Pell.
Langevin heard those words from Pell and “took them to heart,” eventually running for office and serving 11 terms in the House. He became the first quadriplegic ever elected to Congress.
As he gets ready to retire at the end of 2022, the Rhode Island Democrat says encouraging a new generation of students is among the legacies he wants to leave, much like Pell, who transformed the federal financial aid program that now bears his name.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Q: How did you end up working for Pell in the mid-1980s?
A: I met him my freshman year at Rhode Island College. He was speaking about foreign policy issues, and after the event, I said, “I heard about your intern program. How could I apply?” And he said, “I’ll have someone call you.” And he did.
It was only a brief program, one or two weeks, and I wound up doing it twice, actually — once as a freshman, and again my junior year. The duties were mainly just answering phones, but for a 19-year-old kid to be down in Washington for the first time interning, it was quite a thrill.
Q: What’s your most vivid memory from that time?
A: The senator stayed over in his Senate hideaway most of the time, but he brought us over to meet with him. It was like being in a museum — all these photos on the walls of important political figures.
I actually got to attend a hearing where he was testifying, and I remember we arrived around the same time. He said to a Capitol Police officer, make sure this young man gets up close. Here he was about to give testimony — it’s not often that senators will testify before a committee, but that was happening — and he took the time to make sure I could be up closer to the action.
Q: What hurdles did you face on the Hill back then?
A: Traveling and finding accommodations down there was a little bit of a challenge. This was several years before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, so the world wasn’t always ready for me.
The Capitol complex, by those standards, was remarkably accessible for the most part. That’s another thing that really struck me at the time, being in the Senate buildings, in the underground tunnels — the amount of people coming and going was just extraordinary. I’d never been in such a busy setting before. In the back of my mind, I said, what a thrill it would be to work here on Capitol Hill someday, let alone be a member of Congress.
Q: What do you see as the biggest accessibility changes on campus today?
A: They’ve made the House floor much more accessible, with accessible voting stations and places I can give a speech or floor manage a bill.
When I first got there [as a new member in 2001], the lecterns in the well were not mounted to the floor, and I couldn’t get close enough. They were easy to bump and knock over. So I used to have to speak on the side of the lectern. They brought out a wired mic and hooked that to my lapel, and I’d have my speech on my lap. But then they had the craftsmen in the woodworking shop build these beautiful lecterns that are mounted to the floor. The table part comes out far enough toward me so my feet aren’t hitting the base, and my assistant can step on a piston to raise or lower it.
When you floor manage a bill, there are tables for that, but it just wasn’t practical to get a wheelchair there — you’d have to remove chairs, and the floor is angled. So what they did is carve out a rectangular section in the aisle that pops up and makes a platform. I just roll onto that, and I have a table and a microphone there. The same thing for Madison [Cawthorn] on the minority side, the other wheelchair user.
The final major thing in the House chamber is being able to preside over House sessions as speaker pro tempore. A series of two lifts allows me to get to the top of the rostrum.
In the committee rooms across the Hill, most are accessible now with ramps or lifts. The Armed Services Committee was a major change, because they had to bring out the rostrum for each tier of the dias, so someone in a wheelchair wouldn’t be limited to just one spot, but could move up according to seniority.
The biggest thing for the general public is the restrooms being accessible, and also the automatic door openers. Not all the doors are that way yet — that’s still a work in progress.
Q: As far as accessibility goes, what still needs to be addressed?
A: The automatic door openers. Not every member’s office has them yet. And in Rayburn, for example, you have a lot of double doors, but someone in a wheelchair probably isn’t going to fit through just one, they’re too narrow. That really needs to change. In my office, when I hit the automatic door opener, both doors will open.
Q: You’ve said elsewhere that Pell inspired you to run for office. How?
A: I recall at one point him saying, “Someday you can run for office as well” — just a brief comment, but something I took to heart. And just the way he conducted himself, he wasn't a firebrand. He was a gentleman. He didn’t care about who got the credit, he cared about getting the job done. He believed strongly in education, obviously the Pell Grants, but also educating the next generation.
Q: The name Pell has become synonymous with education, with the Pell Grants that give federal money to college students with financial need. Looking back at your 22-year congressional career as you get ready to retire, what do you want the name Langevin to mean?
A: I hope I made a mark in educating people on the issue of cybersecurity, and also career and technical education. I’ve supported increasing the Pell Grants, so no one is denied the opportunity to go to college because of the cost issue. I’d like to get to a point where we eliminate the excess interest charged to students for student loans.
I’ve also been a strong advocate of continuing the intern program. With the exception of a couple of semesters now because of COVID, we always take on interns, both in my district office and in Washington.
I never got the chance to attend, but every year Sen. Pell used to bring together all the Rhode Islanders going to school in D.C. and have a reception at his home, a big affair. I don’t have a big fancy home in Georgetown, but when I got to Congress, I revived that tradition. We invite students to the Hill, give a brief overview of our work in Congress, and also emphasize the importance of the internship program and encourage them to apply. Many of them have over the years.
Q: It’s come full circle.