When Congress Paid Its Interns

The same institutional penny-pinching that has devastated congressional staff has all but wiped out paid internships, with pernicious consequences for Washington and for American democracy.

When I met Kendall on a November Sunday afternoon in a downtown D.C. bar, she had just finished her shift serving appetizers and drinks for a catering company. An energetic Southern California native, Kendall splits her time between the serving job and the one she actually came to D.C. to pursue: an internship on Capitol Hill.

Kendall, who is being identified by her middle name so she can speak openly about her internship, is just the type of young person any congressional office should be eager to employ. She’s articulate, shrewd, and a voracious reader (when we first met, she was paging through a tattered copy of The Culture of Narcissism, by the late political theorist Christopher Lasch). Kendall—whose father sells orthopedic implants and whose mother is a babysitter—grew up in  La Verne, in far east Los Angeles County, excelled at school, and attended Pomona College with significant financial aid, graduating last May. The work she’s doing in Congress, for two California Democratic House members, is mostly clerical—compiling news clips, sorting mail, answering calls from constituents. But she has also been given some higher-order tasks that put her closer to the action. “It was really cool to see a press release go out with what I had written,” she said.

The internship, however, is unpaid, and because her parents can’t afford to bankroll her, she has had to make sacrifices to make her stint on the Hill viable. To cut down on expenses, Kendall takes a grinding hour-and-a-half commute, on two separate buses, from the Arlington, Virginia, apartment she shares with two roommates to the Rayburn House Office Building, where she works. She could take the Metro and zip to work in thirty minutes, but during rush hour that would cost $3.25 each way, while a weekly bus pass costs her just $17.50. On days when she works her second job, she might not get home before 11 p.m.

Kendall, from a modest-income family, can’t help notice a fellow unpaid intern who goes out for lunch on his parents’ credit card while she eats a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at her desk.

Her parents try to help out when they can, but still Kendall says that she spends just $25 per week on groceries—“I eat lots of pasta,” she said. And the requirement that she wear business attire every day has strained her thin budget even more. “For me, it was hard because I didn’t have much of a business wardrobe,” she said. “So I went to the thrift store and bought a blazer for $8. It didn’t fit me right, but it was the best I could find.”

Up to 40,000 interns flock to the nation’s capital annually, working temporary stints in government, journalism, think tanks, and lobbying. By far the highest concentration of interns is on Capitol Hill. Visit on a muggy summer day, and you’re sure to see “Hillterns” in their recognizable ill-fitting suits, struggling to find the nearest Metro station.

Nationwide, about half of all internships are unpaid, even as they are now a nearly mandatory credential for gaining an entry-level job in many white-collar professions. Congress is especially bad: in the House, only 8 percent of Republicans and 4 percent of Democrats compensate even one of their many interns, according to Pay Our Interns, an advocacy organization that tracks payment for interns on the Hill. The partisan difference is partly due to the fact that the GOP is in the majority and can allocate more funds to its members, but it’s still a bad look for liberal politicians who claim to stand for fair pay and higher wages. The situation is better in the Senate, though the disparity isn’t, at least not by much: fifty-one Republicans and thirty-one Democrats offer at least a stipend for at least one intern each year. Still, the great majority of Senate interns are unpaid, and among the minority who are paid, the level of compensation varies widely by office. Bernie Sanders admirably pays all his interns $15 an hour, while Republican Orrin Hatch pays half that, just $7.50 an hour.

Unpaid internships are burdensome anywhere, but especially so in Washington, D.C. For renters, D.C. ranks as the seventh most expensive city in the world. The total cost of a three-month unpaid internship in cities like D.C. and New York can inch toward $6,000 once you factor in such variables as rent, food, and transportation.

As a result, Capitol Hill internships are increasingly opportunities that only young people from affluent families can afford to take. This fact has not escaped Kendall’s notice; she talks about a fellow intern who goes out for lunch on his parents’ credit card while she eats a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at her desk.

Yet unpaid congressional interns have become so embedded into the fabric of the institution that the practice of not paying them is rarely questioned.

It wasn’t always this way. Paid internships were the norm on Capitol Hill until a few decades ago. This was back when congressional staffers earned competitive salaries and there were enough of them to make Congress function more or less effectively. Back then, paid internships were a pipeline that brought kids of modest means to the Hill and gave them the opportunity to learn up close how representative government works and allowed them, perhaps, to rise through the ranks as staffers, policymakers, or even politicians themselves. But the same institutional penny-pinching that has devastated congressional staff has all but wiped out paid internships, with pernicious consequences for Washington and for American democracy.

When Charles arrived on Capitol Hill as a wide-eyed intern in 1969, he was already a paragon of the American meritocracy. His father, Abe, ran a small exterminator business in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, which provided a stable working-class income for Charles and his two siblings. “Our family always associated the smell of roach spray with love,” he would later say. Charles excelled at James Madison High School, and with a perfect SAT score he was soon on his way to Harvard, set on majoring in chemistry. Harvard then was still an enclave for the clean-cut WASP elite, and Charles—who is Jewish, and whose middle name, Ellis, pays homage to the immigrant gateway that millions passed through—wasn’t initially a natural fit at the university. “When I went to Harvard, everyone was either from very wealthy suburbs or from university towns,” he once said.

Charles’s interest in politics crystallized at Harvard, as the Vietnam War raged and college campuses nationwide were engulfed in protest. As a freshman, he went to New Hampshire to campaign for Eugene McCarthy, the antiestablishment senator challenging the incumbent Lyndon Johnson in the 1968 Democratic primary. Catching the political bug, he set off for Washington in 1969, interning for Representative Bert Podell, a New York Democrat. Luckily for him, he was paid—about $1,800 a month in today’s dollars, based on records from the era. Not a fortune, but enough for a short-term gig in D.C.

Charles graduated from Harvard in 1971—he wrote his senior thesis about the ways that Congress could function more efficiently—and three years later, at the age of twenty-three, he became one of the New York State Assembly’s youngest members since Theodore Roosevelt.

Charles, now sixty-seven years old and with graying hair and glasses that sit delicately at the tip of his nose,  is back in Washington. He’s Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

When internships boomed in Congress in the 1960s and ’70s, paid internships like the one that jump-started Schumer’s career weren’t limited to just a few generous offices. According to Ross Perlin, author of Intern Nation, the whole concept of the internship originated in government. In 1935, the nonprofit National Institute of Public Affairs selected thirty students to move to D.C. for a year in 1935, where they would be trained to be the next generation of public servants. Congressional internships appeared a few decades after that—and from there, the intern economy ballooned. Today, 1.5 million Americans intern each year. In D.C., Perlin said, “you can trace how the growth of the whole internship system on Capitol Hill has promoted lobbyists, think tanks, and other places to adopt the practice. It has a ripple effect where people go through the system and come out the other end—the practice replicates itself.”

Congress doesn’t publish statistics on what it does or doesn’t pay its interns. But individual members have to report all spending in their offices, which are released several times a year in dense tomes that account for everything from salaries for their chiefs of staff to purchases of water and candy for the office coffee table. Decades worth of these records are stored in the Library of Congress. If you page through these musty volumes, as I recently did, a pattern emerges.

In 1971, for example, virtually every House office offered paid internships averaging $300 a month, a salary that in today’s dollars would equal $22,000 annually. In the Senate, about 40 percent of offices paid in 1974—the earliest year for which data is available—but by 1980, the rate was up to just under 80 percent. Consider Senator Ernest Hollings, the South Carolina Democrat who was a fixture in the upper chamber for four decades: in 1980, his office paid thirty-six interns between April and September, most of whom made slightly more than $1,000 per month, or $3,110 today. Paid internships weren’t split along partisan lines: Nevada Republican Paul Laxalt had thirty-two interns making roughly the same amount.

In 1971, virtually every House office offered paid internships averaging $300 a month, a salary that in today’s dollars would equal $22,000 annually.

These paid internships enabled countless young people to get a foothold in government service. Jean Bordewich interned in 1970 for L. Richardson Preyer, a House Democrat whose North Carolina district included Guilford College, where she was then a student. “It was just assumed that I was going to be paid,” she said recently. “I couldn’t have done it had I not been paid. I was expected to go home and earn money, like I had the previous summer, to pay for college.”

As an intern, Bordewich earned the equivalent of a staff assistant’s salary, which allowed her to share an apartment in Southwest D.C. close to her office on Capitol Hill. After college, she spent more than two decades in Congress, including as Schumer’s appointed staff director on the Senate Rules Committee, before joining the Hewlett Foundation. (The Washington Monthly is a Hewlett Foundation grantee.)

After Lyndon Johnson’s death in early 1973, lawmakers thought about how to adequately pay homage to the former president, who had himself spent a quarter century in the halls of Congress. They soon decided to appropriate funds for a new program: the LBJ Congressional Intern Program. Each House office was given money to hire interns in two-month stints who would be paid $500 per month, a stipend that was routinely raised to match inflation, and which today would amount to around $2,700.

The LBJ internship program “prepared a whole generation of people for leadership in members’ offices,” said John Weinfurter, who, as chief of staff to Congressman Joe Moakley from 1979 to 1999, ran the program in Moakley’s office. Brandon Wood, who runs the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, made the trek to Washington from Pampa, a remote town of 18,000 in the Texas Panhandle where he had been working construction on oil pipelines for school money, to intern for Representative Bill Sarpalius. “The pay was one of the things that made the internship possible,” said Wood. Eddie Gouge, another former LBJ intern from a modest background, said he wouldn’t have been able to accept the internship without the stipend. The LBJ program “actually led to me getting a job on Capitol Hill, and probably led me to success throughout my career in D.C.,” said Gouge, who now works at the American Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. Sylvia Burwell, raised in small-town West Virginia, came to D.C. as an LBJ intern and, after a fast rise through government ranks, became secretary of health of human services in the Obama administration, She’s now the president of American University. Brad Fitch, the son of a public school teacher, was an LBJ intern for Representative Jack Kemp. Today, after spending decades as a congressional aide and eventually as a chief of staff, he runs the Congressional Management Foundation.

In 1992, presidential candidate Bill Clinton promised that, if elected, he would slash the White House staff as an indication of his seriousness about cutting the deficit, then a raging issue in American politics. After President Clinton followed through on his campaign pledge, Congress—led by Speaker Tom Foley, a Democrat—followed suit, imposing its own 4 percent budget cuts. As Congress tightened its belt, the LBJ internship program was among the first things to go. In May 1994, offices saw their funding yanked away, leaving them scrambling to pay their incoming summer interns.

Paid internships once enabled countless young people to get a foothold in government service. Sylvia Burwell, raised in small-town West Virginia, came to D.C. as a paid intern and, after a fast rise through government ranks, became secretary of Health of Human Services in the Obama administration.

The following year, Congress engineered a bit of legal jujitsu to accommodate its growing appetite for unpaid labor. The Congressional Accountability Act of 1995, which codified minimum wage and other labor protections for congressional staff, stipulated that the definition of an employee “shall not include an intern,” effectively carving an exception for Congress from the labor regulations it levies on the private sector. (The same legislation, by the way, denies interns the ability to file sexual harassment cases on the job.)

Just as Congress was passing the CAA, a congressman named Newt Gingrich assumed the House speakership as Republicans ended forty years of Democratic majority. Among the first priorities of the Gingrich revolution was to deeply cut the congressional workforce. Gingrich sliced committee and individual member staff ranks by a third, and those numbers never fully recovered. Indeed, they were cut even further when the Tea Party–led GOP Congress swept back into power in 2010. In 1993, Congress employed 27,000 people; by 2015, that number had dropped to under 20,000. Meanwhile, the nation’s population increased by sixty million, and real federal spending grew by 62 percent. The scope of Congress’s work, in other words, hasn’t shrunk, only the capacity of its staff to do the work.

This has had a number of deleterious effects. One is the outsourcing of work Congress used to do in-house, like generating and analyzing policy, to think tanks and lobbying shops (see “The Big Lobotomy,” Washington Monthly, July/August 2014). Another is a growing reliance on unpaid interns. A large portion of the front-end interactions with constituents that were once handled by junior staffers—answering phone calls, giving tours of the Capitol, handling flag requests—has been delegated down the food chain to interns. “The need to have a successful intern program has only increased as a result of the budget cuts to congressional offices,” the Congress-focused publication Roll Call advises its readers on the Hill, and “having professional interns who contribute to the office’s productivity is not only desirable for congressional offices, it is now an absolute need.”

Since unpaid interns became the norm in Congress, the cost of living in the city, especially rent, has exploded. Real incomes have risen by a third in the District since 1980, but housing costs have increased by almost 90 percent. The plane ticket to D.C. alone can be a hardship. When Jessica Padron, the daughter of working-class immigrants, interned for Harry Reid in 2013, she had to crowdfund the cost of her move to D.C. from Las Vegas.

A growing number of colleges provide their students with intern stipends, but most are institutions with vast endowments serving mostly wealthy students. Foundations and nonprofits also generously fund Hill interns—for example, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute has funded internships for Latinos for almost forty years. But this funding is available for only a small subset of interns.

By failing to pay interns, Congress not only dissuades children of the non-affluent from becoming interns, but also limits the talent pool from which it draws most of its paid staff. “Whenever we had an opening on our staff, we would always hire from the ranks of former interns above everyone else,” said John Weinfurter, the longtime chief of staff for Joe Moakley. Nicholas Larsen, a legislative correspondent for Representative Jim Himes and a former intern himself, estimated that 40 percent to 60 percent of entry-level staffers were previously interns.

This pinching of the talent pipeline has another downstream effect: fewer minorities in the intern pool—a direct consequence of not offering payment—means fewer minorities in the ranks of the paid staff. In 2015, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that among the 336 top staffers populating Senate offices, only twenty-four were minorities. House staffers aren’t much more diverse—as of 2010, the most recent year for which data is available, 82 percent of chiefs of staff, 77 percent of legislative directors, and 80 percent of legislative correspondents were white. “While I was an intern, one of the biggest things for me was walking down the halls of Congress and not seeing anyone that looked like me,” said Carlos Vera, founder of the group Pay Our Interns, who is Latino. “Actually, the only people that looked like me were the janitors.”

Senate Democrats, led by Chuck Schumer, profess concern over this problem. In March, they approved new conference rules encouraging offices to consider at least one minority candidate for open positions, and, in February, reinvigorated the Senate Diversity Initiative, which collects and distributes resumes of minority applicants for open positions. But the Democrats made no mention of internships, apparently oblivious to the role they play in their own caucus’s homogeneity.

There are hints of a growing movement against unpaid internships. In 2011, Eric Glatt, who interned for Fox Searchlight Pictures on the film Black Swan, sued the company for back pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Glatt ended up settling with Fox Searchlight after the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the production company, but the lawsuit brought unwelcome attention to the companies and nonprofits that for years have relied on unpaid labor. Since 2011, at least fifty suits have been brought on behalf of unpaid interns, and organizations like NPR, the Democratic National Committee, and, yes, the Washington Monthly, have started paying their interns. (I was one of the Monthly’s first paid interns in 2015.)

A couple hundred million dollars a year—a rounding error in a $4.1 trillion budget—would be more than enough for Congress to hire all the staff it needs at competitive salaries. A fraction of that—say, $25 million—could cover paying the minimum wage, currently $12.50 an hour in D.C., to all of its interns.

Congress, however, which did so much to initiate the trend of unpaid internships, has been slow to pick up on the countertrend. This is largely because of its general resistance to hiring and paying staff adequately—that is, to undoing the damage the Gingrich revolution did three decades ago. The irony is that while Congress has many legitimately vexing, headache-inducing problems, this isn’t one of them. Lawmakers control the power of the purse, so they can hire as much staff as they want and pay them as they choose. A couple hundred million dollars a year—a rounding error in a $4.1 trillion budget—would be more than enough for Congress to hire all the staff it needs at competitive salaries. A fraction of that—say, $25 million—could cover paying the minimum wage, currently $12.50 an hour in D.C., to all of its interns.

It’s true that voters aren’t exactly clamoring for lawmakers to expand their staffs, even if doing so would help fix the congressional dysfunction that drives voters crazy. But throughout America there is a growing recognition, long overdue, that not paying interns is shameful and undemocratic. Sector after sector is responding by paying its interns. The failure of Congress to pay its interns could stir emotions of voters in a way that arguments about “insufficient staff capacity” never will. Addressing the unpaid intern issue could therefore be the tip of the spear in the attack on Congress’s failure to invest in its own people, and the beginning of the effort to make Congress work again.

Saahil Desai

Saahil Desai is an assistant editor at the Atlantic. He was previously digital editor at the Washington Monthly.