Capitol Hill has a fashion problem.
And therein lies the rub. How can an unpaid intern or entry-level legislative aide afford to dress so well?
Who am I to say what people can or can’t afford to wear on Capitol Hill? Fair point. Except, I was one of those staffers, 10 years ago.
My first job out of college was a rare paid internship for the House Ways and Means Committee. My $1,100 monthly paycheck exactly covered the rent and utilities in an apartment I shared with two roommates. Every other expense came out of some carefully guarded graduation checks that sustained me until my next job three months later, when I was hired as a staffer.
My starting salary was $25,000, or $2,083.33 a month before taxes. After paying Uncle Sam and for health insurance, I had about $1,450. Rent and utilities took $750, leaving me with $700, or $23 a day. Like most who worked on the Hill, I lived by the free cocktail receptions and never, ever turned down appetizers during happy hour.
With that budget, who could afford to spend 10 days’ worth of disposable income on a pair of shoes? Certainly not any rational Capitol Hill staffer, who by any standard would be among the most intelligent 20-something around.
I quickly learned there are three sources of extra income in Washington. For me, money came via a second job. I tutored pre-med students for $20 an hour on nights and weekends. It didn’t allow for top-notch suits, but it did increase my cash flow.
The easiest font of money is a credit card — and who would blame anyone on the Hill for buying now and paying later? When your bosses make purchases they can’t afford, it sets an easy example.
The last source of money — coming from a well-heeled family — is seemingly ubiquitous but never discussed. For decades, wealthy teens and college grads have come to Washington for unpaid, three-month internships, and they’ve done it dressed to the nines.
What consequences arise when Congress effectively restricts its entry-level workforce to those willing to take on debt via credit cards or those for whom money is no object? It almost certainly makes it more difficult for the child of a teacher from pursuing the ultimate public service career.
If the only way to thrive in Washington is by way of someone else’s bankroll, how can those entrusted to find policy solutions to this country’s problems come from anything lower than the upper middle class?
Of course, not everyone stays at these unpaid or underpaid positions forever. One eventually moves into legislative and counsel positions, and a few bypass working at the front desk altogether. But for many, the only way in is through the ground floor, meaning practically everybody starts out working for peanuts, if anything at all.
Congressional salaries are, in fact, stagnant or declining. My current representative, David E. Price (D-N.C.), paid $1.1 million in salaries in 2012 but only $958,000 in 2014. When I stopped by my old office, I learned that the interns for Ways and Means are no longer paid. There simply isn’t any money for it.
In the nine years since I left the Hill to become a physician, very little has changed. Men’s ties are skinnier, women’s pearls are just as shiny, and Republicans are still running Congress. And many of those stuffing envelopes and answering constituent phone calls are still dressed to kill.
Congressional budgets can’t afford to pay the best and brightest a starting salary that lets them live in an increasingly expensive capital city. It might be time to reconsider this. Otherwise, Americans will continue to live by policies crafted and honed by those who can afford the experience.
The writer is a former Ways and Means staff member.