Interns ‘literally couch surf’ in DC. But more pay could be on the way

House appropriators OK boost for Congress, plus new pay for White House

Jaylin McClinton took out a loan to pay for his internship in Washington. But groups like Pay Our Interns hope the tide is turning. (Courtesy Jaylin McClinton)
Jaylin McClinton took out a loan to pay for his internship in Washington. But groups like Pay Our Interns hope the tide is turning. (Courtesy Jaylin McClinton)
Posted June 30, 2021 at 1:23pm

A Washington internship can open doors for career paths in Congress, the federal government and the government-industrial complex of think tanks, law firms and lobbying shops, if you can afford it.

That “if” — a massive one for kids whose parents can’t cover the cost of a few months of D.C.’s sky-high rents and overpriced eateries — may get a bit smaller next year, as the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday advanced a pair of spending bills bumping allocations for paying interns.

The committee advanced the Financial Services and General Government appropriations bill by a 33-24 vote and the Legislative Branch bill 33-25. 

The Leg Branch legislation included $15.4 million for paying interns in House member offices, a $4.4 million increase over the previous fiscal year that will bump the intern allowance from $25,000 per office to $35,000. Congress began paying its interns directly in 2019 in the hopes of diversifying a predominantly white and wealthy internship composition. But a recent study from Pay Our Interns found limited impact so far, arguing that the pay levels were still too low for interns to live off of without financial support.

The legislation would also create a new pool for paying interns working for House committees, providing $1.9 million to be shared evenly between majority and minority committee offices, plus $346,000 specifically designated for the Appropriations Committee’s interns. It also would bump the pay for House leadership interns from $365,000 in fiscal year 2021 to $438,000 next year. 

The FSGG bill would also provide $4.5 million for the White House to pay its interns, part of a $10.8 million bump for the Executive Office of the President’s administration office budget. White House internships currently don’t pay.

For Jaylin McClinton, the solution to not getting paid for his White House internship was to take on debt. “I had intern colleagues who literally couch surfed because that was the only way they’d be able to take on an opportunity like this,” he said. “I made the decision early on: I had to be invested wholeheartedly.” 

With his retired grandfather as a cosponsor, McClinton took out a $6,000 loan from his credit union, treating the internship like an extra semester of college. 

While most of the interns had their parents paying their bills, McClinton said others who came from modest and middle-class means like him took on second, paying jobs waiting tables or pouring lattes. That meant they couldn’t stay late or show up early, making it harder for them to make an impression and network with White House staff. It also meant missing out on some of the internship’s perks, like a speaker series with senior government officials.

McClinton credits that program with nothing less than changing his life. Michelle Obama spoke at one, and McClinton got a minute to talk with her. “She doesn't remember that conversation, but I do,” McClinton said.

McClinton, who is Black, told her that he grew up in Roseland, a once prosperous Black neighborhood in Chicago that happened to be where one future president got his start in community organizing.  “And almost immediately, she was like, ‘Go back to Chicago,’” he said. “That has really defined my trajectory to date.”

McClinton took that advice, returning to Chicago to work for a state representative before taking a job with the Obama Foundation. Now a third-year law student at Chicago-Kent College of Law, McClinton doubts any of his colleagues missed the chance to see the first lady speak, but they definitely missed out on others, and so they missed out on the opportunity he had — to have a role model give them the kind of advice that shapes their futures.

“I have friends to this day who talk about not being at a speaker series,” McClinton said.

For McClinton, intern pay would have meant avoiding a debt that he still hasn’t fully paid off. Whether future White House interns will have to take out loans, couch surf or pick up side gigs will now depend on the Senate Appropriations Committee, which has yet to release drafts of its spending bills.

Pay Our Interns, which has led its eponymous crusade for remuneration, is hopeful the Senate bills will match the House legislation. “The pendulum has definitely shifted on these conversations,” said Habiba Mohamed, the advocacy group’s federal affairs manager. 

The appropriations process is messy in normal years, often requiring multiple continuing resolutions and the laborious process of bundling, ripping apart and then rebundling various packages to eventually pass just before the Christmas recess — well after the new fiscal year’s start on Oct. 1.  

This year, things are off to an even slower start, in large part because the Trump administration did not cooperate with the presidential transition, delaying President Joe Biden’s budget request, which starts the annual appropriations cycle.