The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Congress isn’t paying its interns enough

A statue of Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia stands in the rotunda of a Senate office building named after him. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Barbara A. Trish is a professor of political science and director of the Rosenfield Program in Public Affairs, International Relations, and Human Rights at Grinnell College.

Here’s an idea to ponder on Labor Day: Why not pay people who work?

Others can grapple with the merits of a universal basic income or the question of whether Division I athletes are students or employees. But this one is easy: Let’s put an end to unpaid Capitol Hill and political campaign positions, the entry-level jobs so perversely enticing to college graduates focused on public service. Congress will soon have an opportunity to make needed headway on this front.

It’s not just graduates who face the prospect of work with no pay. Legions of undergrads also descend on Washington, D.C., for unpaid congressional internships, while others are dispatched by parties and campaigns to the field. These practices are troubling, too, but it’s the use of unpaid college graduates that shatters the illusion of a polity with opportunity for all – including those who can’t afford to do volunteer work after graduating. The good news is that when the House returns from recess on Tuesday, it will find the ball in its court.

In June, the Senate Appropriations Committee, by unanimous consent, added $5 million to the 2019 Legislative Branch Appropriations bill to pay Senate interns. If the provision makes it through the appropriations process, that would mean approximately $50,000 per office for Senate intern compensation. For about $500 weekly, any budget-savvy young person could cover rent, a Metro pass and meals.

This development, promising and long overdue, is a rejoinder to the conceit that “professional development” is compensation enough for these young people. Give credit to groups such as Pay Our Interns and vocal advocate Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) for catalyzing the movement. Not yet a done deal, and for now only covering the Senate, the budget provision nonetheless reflects a nascent trend.

Another bastion of unpaid internships, political campaigns and party organizations, is showing signs of change. For years the progressive left has been susceptible to charges of hypocrisy, pushing fair labor standards programmatically but not always in practice. The Obama campaigns in 2008 and 2012 in particular were fueled by the youthful enthusiasm of unpaid interns and fellows working in the field, a passion that was also harnessed for the Obama administration’s policy campaigns. Democrats have had more work to do in addressing the unpaid-labor matter than Republicans simply because Democratic campaigns are traditionally more reliant on field operations. Republicans, needing to deploy fewer people, also appear to do a better job of paying workers, though the GOP still has plenty of unpaid positions.

Democrats are showing clear signs of catching up. It’s notable that the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee all now offer stipends to interns, acknowledging that relying on unpaid positions limits the diversity of the applicant pool.

The standard Democratic stipend is only $3,000 per semester, yet permissible because congressional internship programs, like party and campaign counterparts, are largely unfettered by U.S. labor law. Deciding whether to pay interns — and how much — rests on other calculations.

One school of thought holds that asking interns to work without pay is a test of their commitment, but that view is belied by the reality of serial interns and the common belief that an unpaid internship is simply a kind of career dues-paying. Unpaid internships do impose some certainty on a labor market, functioning as a probationary period for the lucky graduate whose internship is a pathway into a paying position. Plus, there’s a standing supply of trained workers willing to trade an unpaid position for a paid one.

But the overriding factor accounting for the reliance on unpaid personnel is that budgets are finite. Allowances to cover congressional members’ staffing took dramatic hits beginning in 2011, and they haven’t yet fully rebounded. Another factor: The maximum number of permanent employees per office has been static since 1975, another reason to turn to temporary workers.

The allure of free labor is hard to resist, even if exploiting workers isn’t the goal. But it makes sense for these workplaces to look beyond the bottom line in their calculus. If the GOP is really concerned about the Washington “swamp,” then place these positions within the reach of new graduates of modest economic means. Given the Senate’s move to provide paid positions, the House should follow suit, preserving its stature in the balance of institutional resources. And if Democrats want to win campaigns, they should think about the voters they need to secure and realize that a workforce resembling the voting population sends a better signal. Funding internships barely makes a dent in the problems with labor and public service, but it would be a good start.

Read more:

Danielle Paquette: Senators have more money now. Will they finally pay their interns?

Carlos Vera: Memo to Jason Chaffetz: These are the congressional workers who actually need a stipend

E. Philip Lehman: Congressional staffers’ $225 shoes reveal a major problem on Capitol Hill

Melissa Richmond: Trent Franks rescinded my internship when I wouldn’t come to his house

Ryan Aston: I’m your bartender. I don’t want a raise.