Congress

$15 an hour ‘living wage’ for interns in district offices and Capitol Hill introduced in House

The bill would permanently authorize funding, which could also be used in district offices

Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., introduced a proposal to pay House interns $15 per hour. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Forty House lawmakers are calling for a “living wage” for House interns, and an expansion of where funds set aside to pay interns can be used — including in district offices.

The proposal was introduced last week by Washington Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith. It would permanently authorize funding to pay interns an allowance, and it would permit offices to use intern compensation funds to pay them in district offices.

[Congress is crawling with rich kids. I should know, I was one of them]

Congress first approved funding specifically for intern pay in fiscal 2019. The Legislative Branch spending bill included $8.8 million to pay interns in the House and $5 million for intern pay in the Senate. The Senate funding is included in the accounts lawmakers use to pay staff salaries, official travel and office expenses. House funds were portioned into a newly created account for each member office.

One of the goals behind the move towards paying interns is to level the playing field so that a broader population can participate. High rents and cost of living in Washington D.C. make taking a summer or semester of unpaid work as an intern unfeasible for many students.

But Smith says the existing funding level for House interns simply isn’t enough. In a statement Tuesday, he said the current intern funding level pencils out to an annual salary of $20,000, or approximately $9.62 per hour — even less if offices are spreading funds between multiple interns.

Carlos M. Vera, the founder of paid internship advocacy group Pay Our Interns, agrees more needs to be done.

[House and Senate Interns Set to Receive Pay in Legislative Branch Spending Package]

He said the organization supports the ongoing conversation to increase funding for intern pay and said that the current $20,000 per office level is “not nearly enough.”

Offices sometimes have close to a dozen interns. And when offices try to divvy up the intern pay funding, some Capitol Hill interns end up receiving a $400 stipend for four months of work, according to Vera.

Vera pointed to high costs of living in Washington D.C. and the surrounding area as a major barrier for interns from low-income backgrounds to get an opportunity in public service on Capitol Hill. Between rent, transportation and putting together a small professional wardrobe, $400 wouldn’t go far.

“You can barely pay for Metro for four months with that,” he told Roll Call on Monday.

Smith’s bill 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. The rate of intern pay will increase in tandem with percentage increases in the Consumer Price Index each year thereafter, according to Smith’s office.

“For Congressional offices to represent the diverse interests of their constituents, it is important that everyone has the opportunity to engage in the legislative process and civic service,” Smith said. “Paid internships help bring a diversity of ideas and backgrounds to both the Washington, D.C. and local district offices, and expand equality of opportunity for all to participate in our democracy.”

Smith drafted a letter to Legislative Branch appropriators in late March, requesting the subcommittee fund the House intern pay allowance at least at the level of $13,759,200 for fiscal 2020. The letter, obtained by Roll Call, requests an increase of $8,800,000 for the coming fiscal year. 

It is not clear what happens next for the proposal, which would need to pass the House, Senate and be signed by President Donald Trump.

“We’re working with House leadership to figure out what the vehicle is. I don’t know at this point,” Smith told Roll Call on Monday.

Smith said he would prefer the measure advance into law, rather than as a House resolution that carries out administrative business for the chamber.

“By making the House Intern Pay Allowance a law, it makes the allowance less likely to change at the whims of individual members in the House,” Smith told Roll Call.

The measure was referred to the Committee on House Administration.

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