Securing intern compensation funding last year was a huge victory for lawmakers and advocates. Now they just have to figure out how to get the word out and expand the pie.
As interns descend on Capitol Hill for a summer of public service, more will be paid for their work than ever before. But widespread paid internships are still in their infancy in Congress. This is the first summer that House and Senate offices have dedicated funding available to cut checks.
That means this year’s crop could feel some growing pains as offices get their paid programs set up. The spring-semester cohort smoothed out some of the kinks, but summer brings the largest groups of interns.
In a July 2018 CQ Roll Call survey of Capitol Hill staff and interns, 35 percent of respondents said their parents, family or a spouse picked up the tab for their rent during their internships. For students whose families can’t shell out thousands of dollars to keep them afloat for a summer or semester in D.C., unpaid internships may be out of reach.
Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, himself a former intern, was among those driving last year’s push for pay. The goal was to level the playing field — but to see it through, lawmakers will have to do more than throw money at the problem.
“It’s not enough to just have the pool of funding. Members have to actually go and reach out to students who might be under the impression that they can’t afford coming to Washington,” the Connecticut Democrat said.
Murphy’s office tries to make connections with students early — as early as high school.
“We’ve really had a focus on trying to bring kids from Connecticut cities into the page program,” he said. “We’ll try to get the word out there so that as those kids start to go to college, they have it on their mind.”
Guillermo Creamer, co-founder of the advocacy organization Pay Our Interns, agrees. The group recently crisscrossed the country spreading the word about paid internship opportunities, both on Capitol Hill and elsewhere.
Pay Our Interns visited more than 40 community colleges, Hispanic-serving institutions and historically black colleges and universities and met with students who might be interested in public service internships, but might not know they can get paid.
Creamer has some advice for House and Senate offices looking to attract students with a wider range of life experiences.
“Look at your constituent map. Point out the community colleges and the schools that your office doesn’t have an established relationship with,” he said.
Another need is transparency from the outset about whether the internship opportunity is paid, along with the hourly rate or stipend amount. Creamer thinks that would help recruit a diverse field of applicants.
He’s noted an uptick in internship listings on online job boards that are clearly marked as paid, but said offices can be even more specific.
“Don’t make an intern jump through hoops to find out if you’re going to pay them,” Creamer said.
Current funding for the Legislative Branch includes $8.8 million to pay interns in the House and $5 million for Senate interns.
The Senate funding is included in the accounts that lawmakers use to pay staff salaries, official travel and office expenses. But House funds exist in a newly created account for each member office exclusively for intern compensation.
The House Legislative Branch Appropriations bill for fiscal 2020 includes a boost. The bill would provide funding of $11 million to pay interns, increasing the allowance for each member office from $20,000 to $25,000. The measure also extends the internship funding to leadership offices, with $200,000 allocated for compensation of interns who serve in House leadership offices of the majority, and $165,000 for minority leadership offices.
The measure has cleared the Appropriations subcommittee and full committee, but is awaiting action on the House floor.
“I’m especially proud that this bill includes a funding increase to pay our interns. It’s long overdue. These young people are an integral part of every congressional office and should be paid for their work,” said Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, who chairs the Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee.
That increase, however, is shy of the nearly $13.8 million that Rep. Adam Smith requested in a letter to the Legislative Branch subcommittee in March. The Washington Democrat has introduced a bill that would permanently authorize enough money to fund a full-time, year-round internship position in each member’s Capitol Hill or district congressional office at a rate of $15 per hour for the first year of enactment.
Republicans and Democrats would like to see the House intern funding expanded to include district office interns. Last year’s bill included a restriction that the intern compensation funding could only be used to pay for interns in Washington.
Things are moving more slowly in the Senate, as appropriators await a final budget deal that will give lawmakers a cap for how much overall money they can work with.
But Murphy, the top Democrat on the Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee, is optimistic that intern compensation funds will be included in the chamber’s Legislative Branch spending measure.
“I do know that we had a large number of members request that the funding continue in the upcoming budget — those represented members on both sides of the aisle,” Murphy said.
Pay Our Interns met with Senate appropriators Thursday to advocate increased funding for senatorial interns.
The group is pushing for the Senate to include funding for committees to hire paid interns, in addition to senators’ personal offices. The House included funding for committee interns in its fiscal 2020 proposal.
The total amount that Pay Our Interns is advocating is approximately $1 million, with a goal of between $35,000 and $45,000 per committee in the Senate for intern pay.
Funding for individual offices has been successful so far, according to Murphy.
“The funding we have allows us to run what I think is a very reasonable program in our office. I haven’t heard from members that the amount of funding right now is insufficient to be able to provide reasonable compensation for the intern program,” he said.
A number of Senate offices already paid interns, even before the dedicated funding was made available, Murphy pointed out. Senators, including Murphy, paid interns out of their standard office allowances.
“In the Senate, there was already experience working through how to compensate interns,” he said.
Murphy talked to CQ Roll Call before Pay Our Interns met with appropriators. At that time, he didn’t anticipate a boost in funding for Senate interns.
“No, I’m not foreseeing any major changes in the funding or the policy behind the funding in this coming fiscal year,” Murphy said.