More than 200 congressional interns have signed a petition opposing President Reagan's Central American policies, and yesterday morning Rep. Mike Lowry (D-Wash.) presented the petition to his fellow legislators on the House floor.
The action, and the reaction, was reminiscent of a 1967 drive by congressional interns opposing U.S. involvement in Vietnam, which raised questions of the propriety of interns speaking out on such issues.
Ernest Mannino, director of the Congressional Intern Office, said yesterday, "It's a statement of fact that any kind of behavior like this jeopardizes the program. All we've got to do is to get someone's nose out of joint and we jeopardize the future of the program."
The petition, which the interns hope to present to Reagan, calls for an end to all military aid to Central America and seeks to "extend voluntary departure status to Central American refugees until they can safely return to their homelands."
Some of the interns involved in the drive became uneasy Wednesday, when Charles Howell, counsel to the Committee on House Administration, which oversees the Intern Office, called Lowry's office to express concern over the drive.
Clayton Lewis, the intern in Lowry's office who is leading the petition drive, says that during that phone call Howell told a staff member that the drive must be halted by 11 that morning or the internship program would be in jeopardy.
Lewis said Howell told the staff member it was inappropriate for interns to pursue such activities on House time, and that he did not want to see the internship program endangered. The staff member, who declined to be named, verified the substance of the call.
In a telephone interview yesterday, Howell said he did call Lowry's office. But he said he merely wanted to warn the interns that their plans to seek signatures at the Library of Congress before an intern event at 11 a.m. Wednesday would violate library rules. Howell said yesterday that Lewis was blowing the issue out of proportion and that the intern's description of Howell's phone call to Lowry's office was not accurate.
"The question of deportment is really our only concern," Howell said. "The principal reason the interns are here is as an educational experience. Whatever activity they want to engage in is, like for any other human being in this country, I hope, up to them."
On Wednesday, after hearing of Howell's call, the interns who organized the petition drive decided the petition would not be circulated on House time, but that the drive would continue.
"I told the other interns to use discretion," said Lewis. "It is inappropriate to be passing the petition on members' time."
"Our intention is not to jeopardize the internship program, but we felt we weren't breaking any of the rules they described," said JoAnn Chase, another organizer and an intern in Rep. Byron Dorgan's (D-N.D.) office. "Ultimately, we don't want to seem disrespectful, to have people say, 'Oh, a crazy bunch of teen-agers are raising hell on the Hill.' "
More than 3,000 volunteer and paid interns worked on the Hill in July. All of them are under the direct jurisdiction of the legislators for whom they work. The Congressional Intern Office provides assistance for a program that sponsors speakers throughout the year, and is responsible for other administrative aspects of the internship program.
The office has no power over the interns chosen by individual legislators, nor can it prevent legislators from hiring interns; only the speaker programs and other limited activities, such as production of intern identification cards, are under its jurisdiction.
The petition drive began a month ago when Ralph Nader, speaking to a gathering of almost 1,000 interns, suggested they pool their talents on a general project. Nearly 75 interns expressed interest, and the next day Lewis called a meeting to discuss just what the project should be. After lengthy debate, the 25 interns at the meeting decided to prepare the Central America petition. Two and a half weeks later, after more debate, the petition was completed. Monday, a letter addressed to interns explaining the petition was slipped under all doors in the House and Senate office buildings.
"I feel like I've been on this incredible high for the last three weeks," Chase said. "We decided to go into it with a pessimistic attitude. We didn't expect to see congressmen jumping up and down about it. But it's been a really exciting experience."
"I was really encouraged that this many people joined us," Lewis said. "People are really interested in taking this issue back to their campuses in the fall."
Some other congressional interns are not quite as enthusiastic. On Wednesday, Greg Richens, an intern who declined to name the office for which he works, started circulating a counter-petition that supported Reagan's policies. So far, he says, he has received more than 35 signatures.
And interns Tom Jones and Gib Kerr have written to Lewis and met with him to express their opposition to his petition. "For the most part we're supporting President Reagan's policies," said Jones. "He Lewis is a very clever fellow and very eloquent. He wrote some things that were very catchily phrased. But we think he was rather arrogant to circulate this petition. I can't quite believe that he would express his opposition to what some of the best specialists in the country are saying."
Jones and Kerr have not seen Richens' counter-petition, but Kerr said, "I'd probably sign it."