How Congress Came to Pay Its Interns

It was one small step to make a big difference for Washington and American democracy.

For the Washington Monthly’s 50th anniversary issue, twenty former editors revisited one of their most important stories for this magazine. They looked at pieces that had an impact on the world or on themselves; that presaged something big to come; or that were totally wrong in an interesting way. Below is one of the resulting essays. Read more of them here.

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Compared to the never-ending drama of the Trump presidency, the plight of unpaid congressional interns may seem trivial. For decades, most of the roughly 6,000 interns who descend each year on Capitol Hill have earned nothing for their labor. But does anyone really care if some moneyed Yale student has to spend a summer answering constituent calls and leading Capitol tours for free?

We should. Today’s congressional interns are tomorrow’s staffers and elected officials, and Congress’s penny-pinching has long skewed the pipeline toward the type of people who can afford to work an unpaid stint—in other words, moneyed Yale students. One intern I talked to, from a working-class background, commuted an hour and a half to get to the Hill and worked late nights as a server to make her internship feasible. Others in her situation don’t even bother to apply for unpaid positions. 

This helps explain why Hill staffers tend to be far wealthier and whiter than the constituents they work for. In 2015, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that among the 336 top staffers in Senate offices, only twenty-four were people of color. House aides aren’t much more diverse—as of last year, more than 85 percent of top staffers were white. 

In 2017, I set out to write about the problem for the Washington Monthly. I started with a tip from Jean Bordewich, a program officer at the Hewlett Foundation’s Madison Initiative and a former Hill intern. For decades, Bordewich said, Congress did pay its interns, opening up government to the nonwealthy—including a working-class Harvard student from Brooklyn named Chuck Schumer. But while I tracked down a few former paid congressional interns, I lacked data to prove the theory, or explain why the stipends had dried up. When I filed my first draft, Monthly editor in chief Paul Glastris said the words you never want to hear from an editor: “This is a great start.”

To my chagrin, he sent me off to the Library of Congress, where I spent several days in a windowless room paging through budgetary records from the 1970s and ’80s. It was a gold mine. In 1971, virtually every House office offered paid interns stipends that would equal $22,000 annually in today’s dollars. In the Senate it was a similar story: By 1980 almost all offices paid their interns. The practice met its demise in the 1990s, when Newt Gingrich took a chainsaw to Congress’s operational budget and offices began asking interns to work for free.

Since my piece came out early last year, however, Congress has done something very un-Congress-like—it has course-corrected. Starting in March 2019, it has set aside a pool of money specifically to pay interns. Salaries are capped at $1,800 a month, a small but helpful sum for a twenty-year-old already making do on bowls of ramen.

It’s hubristic for journalists to claim credit for developments that unfurl after their stories are published. Activists, especially the group Pay Our Interns, did the hard work of convincing members of Congress to appropriate the money. But I suspect that the Monthly helped advance the cause by publishing the piece as that effort was underway. It’s a reminder of what the magazine does best: diagnosing what prevents government from working properly and prescribing solutions to root out the problem. Paying interns is a modest victory, but it’s precisely the kind of reform that actually makes government work a little better.

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Saahil Desai

Saahil Desai is a politics editor at the Atlantic. He was digital editor at the Washington Monthly from 2016 to 2018.