capitol building congress
Credit: Mark Fischer/Flickr

The list of issues that Congress keeps refusing to address is snowballing out of control—bills to protect the Dreamers languish, gun control has gone nowhere, and Republicans are sitting idly by as Trump ignites a global trade war. The GOP knows its agenda is unpopular, so it has all but boarded up the windows of the Capitol Building and shut off the lights until after the midterms. Yet, amid this calculated lethargy, the Senate Appropriations Committee last week advanced a small but vital reform—paying its own interns.

Each year, more than 6,000 wide-eyed interns swarm the halls of Congress. Most of them don’t earn a cent for the hours spent answering calls from angry constituents and regurgitating memorized lines on tours of the Capitol.

The rise of unpaid internships on the Hill, as I wrote earlier this year, is a relatively new development. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, when internships took off in Congress, compensation was the norm. As a college student, Chuck Schumer—then a working-class kid from Brooklyn, today the Democratic leader in the Senate—came to Washington for a paid internship in the House that helped start his career in politics.

But amid the fever of ‘90s era budget cuts, compensation for internships shriveled up, even as the cost of living in D.C. began to skyrocket. Today, most members of Congress don’t pay their interns. I spoke with one unpaid intern, Kendall, who endured a 90-minute commute and late nights serving appetizers at glitzy cocktail parties to make her internship on Capitol Hill financially viable.

For every Kendall, countless other budding politicos turn down or don’t even apply for unpaid congressional internships. That has ripple effects. Since offices snatch up their interns for full-time gigs when positions open up—90 percent of intern coordinators say that internships are valuable for hiring junior staffers—limiting internships to those who can afford to work for free helps insure that Hill staffers are overwhelmingly white and affluent. Only 7 percent of top Senate staffers are minorities; just one democratic senator, Doug Jones, has a black chief of staff.

These new funds in the Senate could really change that. Last Thursday, during the markup for the 2019 budget bill, the Senate Appropriations Committee snuck in language allocating $5 million to compensate the chamber’s interns. The money will be divvied up by office based on state population—so $73,200 for California’s senators versus $46,000 for Montana’s senators—and will fund roughly 2,000 internships.

Surprisingly, getting the money for interns through the Appropriations Committee wasn’t especially difficult—all 33 committee members voted for it. The law was introduced by a bipartisan coterie of senators, but Chris Van Hollen and Brian Schatz, two Democratic co-sponsors, put in most of the political muscle behind it. “It was smooth sailing today, but getting here was not easy,” said Carlos Vera, a 24-year-old who heads the group Pay Our Interns and has spent the past year lobbying Congress to do precisely this. An early acolyte was Van Hollen, and he’s been the leading advocate for expanding pay for interns—in last year’s budget, he introduced language requiring the Appropriations Committee to study the feasibility of paying interns.

Paying interns is one small step towards fixing the bigger problem of Congress’s lack of adequate staff support. 7,000 fewer people work in Congress today than in 1993—the number of committee staffers has especially plummeted. The net effect is that policymaking has mostly been handed off to ideological think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the bees’ nest of lobbyists that swarm around the Capitol.

The compensation for interns isn’t yet a fait accompli: it could still be nixed during the messy budget fight that erupts each year. The big question now is whether the House will follow the Senate’s lead. The vast majority of unpaid interns are in the House—under 6 percent of House members pay, versus about half of all senators—so it’s the House that needs to do the heavy lifting.

“The one thing in my thirty years of working with the Congress,” said Brad Fitch, the president of the Congressional Management Foundation, “is that if one chamber is getting something that that the other doesn’t get, it ticks off members of the chamber that isn’t benefitting. When House members realize that senators have an asset to improve their office operations, I think we’re probably going to see some movement in the House.”

Saahil Desai

Follow Saahil on Twitter @Saahil_Desai. Saahil Desai is a politics editor at the Atlantic. He was digital editor at the Washington Monthly from 2016 to 2018.