Heard on the Hill

New Push for Senators to Pay Their Interns

Advocates say the time is right for offices to stop relying on free labor

A majority of Senate offices do not offer paid internships, according to data from nonprofit advocacy group Pay Our Interns. (Illustration by Chris Hale/CQ Roll Call)

Ideas to boost diversity on the Hill have been thrown around, and the numbers are slowly improving. But what if the solution was right in front of everyone, sitting at tiny shared desks in congressional offices?

Paid interns.

In the Senate, 26 Republican offices and 21 Democratic ones pay their interns in some form, according to data from Pay Our Interns, a group that advocates more paid internships, and research and analysis by Roll Call.

Newly appointed senators, Tina Smith of Minnesota and Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi are not included in the data.

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As it currently is organized, money for interns comes from each office’s budget. But now the cash pool they have to work with just got bigger.

The $1.3 trillion omnibus package that was signed by the president last month included a 9 percent overall increase for senators’ “official personnel and office expense account,” which they can use for staffing, but also for mail, travel and equipment. The number of staffers hired and their duties are up to each senator.

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Pay Our Interns, which collected some of its data by visiting all Senate offices, is now reaching out to those that don’t pay their interns with a road map showing how the additional funds can help make that happen.

“With that extra money, all those excuses to not pay your interns goes out the window. Now that they have several hundreds of thousands of dollars, it’s not that hard to set aside $20K to pay your interns,” said Carlos M. Vera, the group’s founder and executive director and himself a former unpaid House intern.

Different models

There is no standard for how much to pay interns. Many offices offer a stipend of varying amounts. But students who receive academic credit for their internship are often not permitted by their schools to also get paid.

For some offices, paying interns depends on the time of year.

According to Pay Our Interns, Nebraska Sen. Deb Fischer, for example, pays fall interns but not summer ones; her fellow Republican Sen. Richard M. Burr of North Carolina pays interns in the spring and fall, but not in the summer; Oklahoma Republican James M. Inhofe and Delaware Democrat Thomas R. Carper pay summer interns but not in the spring or fall.

Alaska GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski offers two internship programs, one for college students and one for recent high school graduates, who apply while they are seniors. All receive stipends. 

Alabama Democrat Doug Jones and Vermont independent Bernie Sanders pay their interns $15 an hour.

Some senators offer paid internships to constituents. For example, Sen. Bob Casey offers paid internships to Pennsylvania students, while fellow Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto offers them to students from Nevada.

Millennial whisperers — the group of senators who have strong support among voters in their 20s — aren’t necessarily supporting them in their offices. Democratic Sens. Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, Christopher S. Murphy and Tammy Duckworth don’t pay their interns, according to Pay Our Interns’ data. Neither do the offices of Republican Sens. Todd Young and Marco Rubio

“Politicians love to talk about a living wage and providing opportunities for the future, yet some won’t even give them money to buy coffee,” Vera said.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, who has said he hopes to increase diversity among staffers, does not pay his interns, while Majority Leader Mitch McConnell does, per Pay Our Interns’ data.

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Beyond Congress

Pay Our Interns said its long-term goal is to have every office pay its interns from its own budget.

The group also works with national party committees to get their interns paid. As the midterms approach, both parties are hiring summer interns. The Democratic National Committee started offering stipends in December 2017.

“A limited number of stipends are available. They are granted based on a simple application, which will be sent after an intern has accepted an offer,” the DNC website reads.

The Republican National Committee has been paying its summer interns through its Eisenhower Intern Program.

“This is a structured, full-time paid internship and space is limited,” the RNC website reads. The program runs from May 30 to Aug. 3 this year, and is for undergraduate students.

 

Pricey town

Among the thousands of students who will be coming to Washington over the summer to work for free, not all will be able to solely rely on their families for financial support.

While most will gain valuable experience from their internships, off the Hill, it’s another story. 

“Experience doesn’t pay the bills. Experience is not going to pay for my $1,000-a-month rent in D.C., the public transportation or the professional clothing,” Vera said.  

The average rent in April for a one-bedroom apartment in Washington is $2,028, according to listing service RENTCafé, and on Capitol Hill, it’s $2,361. And that’s just for a place to stay. Interns also have to factor in getting to and from work, and the cost of living in the city — often more than their home districts.

Some universities help with the burden, though there have been calls for them to do more. A recent op-ed in UCLA’s student newspaper pushed for the school to boost the financial assistance it offers students interning in D.C.

Or interns get a second job to try and make ends meet. So the next time you’re at Union Pub and your 21-year-old bartender looks a bit tired, it might be because he or she has already had a full day interning on the Hill.

 

Correction 10:10 a.m. | An earlier version of this story incorrectly included Sens. Cory Gardner’s and Angus King’s offices among those that does not pay its interns.

Sara Wise and Katherine Tully-McManus contributed to this report.

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