One of the feel-good stories of 2018 actually didn’t conclude until well into 2019.
On Tuesday, six months after the initial approval, a congressional committee gave the final sign-off on a program that will allow Capitol Hill interns to be paid. The amounts may seem small, a maximum of $1,800 a month for each intern, but that can be the make-or-break difference for people like Beatriz Reynoso, 30, who is interning on the House side during the spring semester while studying at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.
Reynoso is the epitome of the burgeoning movement on Capitol Hill to ensure that spots in the workforce are not reserved for the privileged few who can afford to intern for free and then take low-paying jobs in Congress while relying on family financial support.
Reynoso spent eight years in the Air Force, including two tours abroad as a machine-gunner, one in Bagram, Afghanistan. A disabled veteran, she does not enjoy being in the large, loud, crowded cafeterias and hearing rooms of the Capitol complex. But she couldn’t be more proud to work under the Capitol dome.
“I believe in service. I enjoy my internship and the work I’m doing,” she said in a recent interview.
Paying interns used to be common practice — Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) had a paid internship on Capitol Hill in 1969 — but it turned into an office-by-office decision when funds were cut for deficit reduction.
The nonprofit Pay Our Interns, with just two staff members and two interns (yes, paid), set out to shine the light on Congress. Its 2017 survey showed that more than 90 percent of House offices did not pay interns, while in the Senate, 51 percent of GOP offices and 31 percent of Democratic ones paid their interns.
A year later, sufficiently shamed as cheapskates, Congress bowed to the pressure, approving $14 million as an initial down payment for interns. Each House office has a pool of $20,000 annually, and Senate office funds depend on state size.
“Working for free isn’t cheap,” Rep. Susan A. Davis (D-Calif.) said, in an intentional understatement, at Tuesday’s hearing of the House Administration Committee. The Senate has already taken care of its portion.
Carlos Mark Vera, one of the founders of Pay Our Interns, attended the hearing not to see the culmination of his work but instead to launch the next big chapter.
His group has lined up a handful of younger lawmakers who started their careers as congressional interns to make tribute videos to get the word out on college campuses around the country: The Hill is no longer just for the well-off.
Those lawmakers include freshman Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), a rising liberal star from Boston, and Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), a moderate from the Mahoning Valley who is considering running for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Despite their different backgrounds, their stories are quite similar: From working-class roots, Pressley and Ryan landed critical congressional internships during college, followed by full-time jobs in Congress, before running for office themselves.
Vera is also asking offices to extend, or in some cases reopen, their summer intern application process so that the broadest possible crop can apply for these unique positions.
Until this week, House offices were unable to pay their current interns, such as Reynoso, and were not allowed to advertise the upcoming summer internships as paid stints.
Reynoso, who said that her dream is to one day serve in Congress, considers herself lucky, financially, to have the GI Bill for tuition and some expenses.
But those funds are based on the cost of living in Edinburg, Tex., about 20 miles north of the Mexican border — nothing like Washington and its surging rental apartment market.
She has been waiting for the committee to give its final approval so that the intern pay could supplement the money from the GI Bill.
“I know I’m not the only one in this situation; there are other interns currently on the Hill that have it worse than I do,” Reynoso said.
Rep. Rodney Davis (Ill.), the ranking Republican on the Administration Committee, bemoaned the limitation of the intern stipend to just those who work in Washington, calling for the pilot program’s expansion.
In a different hearing Tuesday, members of a special committee tasked with modernizing Congress heard from lawmakers who want a larger pot of money for interns.
This particular panel has the chance to push even bigger ideas, such as providing more funds for full-time staff members.
Budget cuts to staff, enacted in 2011, have left the overall pot of money for personnel well below where it was a decade ago, creating a crunch in salaries. Lawmakers and their chiefs of staff have been left to look for places to skimp on funds.
One of the easiest places to go cheap? Interns.
That explains why, by 2017, 9 out of 10 House offices were not offering any money to their interns.
Davis called Tuesday’s action “only a start” in the effort to make sure lower-income students have a chance to intern in Congress.
But Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Administration Committee, cautioned her colleagues against going overboard on college-age interns who perform basic tasks and are really here to absorb the legislative process.
“They’re not jobs, they’re educational opportunities,” Lofgren said.
But then she recalled her own journey. In May 1970, after graduating from Stanford University, she interned for Rep. Don Edwards (D-Calif.), returning a few years later to a full-time job in that office and eventually running for local office.
Then Edwards retired from Congress in 1994. On Tuesday, the daughter of a truck driver said it all began with that internship — paid — in Edwards’s congressional office.
“It made all the difference for me, and now I am his successor,” Lofgren said.
Reynoso hopes to tell a similar story in the years to come.