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Your Turn: Should Congress Pay Its Interns and Staffers a ‘Living Wage’?

by Countable | Updated on 12.5.18

  • Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez promised yesterday to pay her interns “at least” $15 per hour, and criticized other members of Congress for employing unpaid interns and not paying staffers a “living wage.”
  • A 2017 report from non-profit group Pay Our Interns found that in the House, just 8 percent of Republicans and 3.6 percent of Democrats pay their interns. In the Senate, 51 percent of Republicans and 31 percent of Democrats do.

Why it matters

Advocacy group Pay Our Interns argues:

“An internship for a congressperson is the quintessential prerequisite for a political career, particularly if the intern chooses to work in our government later in life. While the internship is an undeniably invaluable experience and is critical for professional growth, an internship in Congress will cost each intern upwards of $6,000… The overwhelming majority of internships offered in both the Senate and U.S. House of Representatives are unpaid, creating a situation where the majority of individuals able to work Congressional internships come from families of higher economic status or suffer crippling financial pressure.”

Many critiques of unpaid internships say they undermine diversity and inclusion efforts, since they favor privileged students who can afford to forgo pay. Given that Congressional internships are an important pipeline to a political career, this logic would suggest that the system serves to discourage diversity among our country’s leadership.

The Atlantic points out another concern:

“But beyond the questions of diversity and opportunity lie an even more basic offense: Once again, lawmakers have put themselves above the law, explicitly exempting their offices from the rules and regulations they’ve imposed on much of the rest of the nation. When lawmakers passed the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995, which set forth basic wage and labor standards for Hill staff, they made sure to cut interns out of the deal. So while private-sector interns are covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act, congressional ones basically have to rely on the benevolence of their bosses. Increasingly few fields are legally permitted to exploit entry-level laborers quite like Congress.”

It’s difficult to find statements of outright opposition to paying interns, likely due to the poor optics of such a position. The most likely reasoning is that the status quo saves taxpayers money to the tune of several million dollars per year.

Legislative action

Starting in 2019, both the Senate and the House will have funds to pay interns under the terms of a spending package that passed in September. The House will be given $8.8 million to distribute across members’ offices, and the Senate will be given $5 million. The legislation doesn’t obligate lawmakers to pay their interns, but the newly allotted funds can only be used for that purpose.

The House Intern Pay Act would pay college interns working in the U.S. House of Representatives on Capitol Hill. The rate would be $15 per hour in fiscal year 2019, and from then on would be tied to inflation.

What do you think?

Should Congress pay its interns and staffers a “living wage”? Why or why not? Tell your reps what you think, then share your thoughts below.

—Sara E. Murphy

(Photo Credit: U.S. Representative Clay Higgins / Public Domain)

Countable

Written by Countable

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(283)
  • Robert
    Voted Yes
    12/05/2018
    ···

    They are working for a representative and our government. Not only do they deserve a living wage, they also deserve benefits

    Like (49)
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  • Andrew
    12/05/2018
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    Everyone deserves a chance to live a life.

    Like (29)
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  • Vanessa
    Voted No
    12/05/2018
    ···

    It’s coming out of OUR taxes. Internships are part of education. Taxpayers should not be on the hook for someone else’s education, especially not an elite one like a DC internship.

    Like (16)
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  • Terrance
    Voted Maybe
    12/05/2018
    ···

    There is presently no limit to the number of staffers. If Congress wishes to pay with our tax dollars there needs to be a justification for the number of staffers by office and level that can be legally tested.

    Like (14)
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  • Alexandra
    Voted Yes
    12/05/2018
    ···

    How are we not paying interns???? It’s 2018

    Like (21)
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  • Kayley
    12/05/2018
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    A living wage is not an option. Either you enable people to make ends meet or you forsake your constituents. How insulting is it to your direct supporters to not value their time, rights, and efforts enough to pay them decently?

    Like (20)
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  • eliyak
    Voted No
    12/05/2018
    ···

    If you want a higher wage, go into a more productive field. i.e. anything but government.

    Like (7)
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  • I.Got.an.Idea...
    Voted Maybe
    12/05/2018
    ···

    Certainly all staffers should receive a livable compensation, which should include 100% healthcare and 4 weeks PTO. Interns should receive $15 an hour minimum.

    Like (7)
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  • bphillips937
    Voted Yes
    12/05/2018
    ···

    Unpaid internships perpetuate inequality regarding socioeconomic status in congressional careers. Unpaid internships are made for people who can afford them, not people who need them.

    Like (12)
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  • burrkitty
    Voted Yes
    12/05/2018
    ···

    They are “elite DC internships” BECAUSE THEY ARE UNPAID. Studio apartment $1600 a month utilities $120 a month, car or transit pass, phone, internet, food, HEALTH INSURANCE... you -have- to sponge off your family. It’s a more than full time job (especially if you’re trying to start your political career there is a lot of outside extra time). You’ve already got to be rich, or prepare to seriously hurt financially to go do it. That’s what makes it elite. Not because getting accepted is particularly hard, but because it takes being able to support someone making no income living in DC. If the interns got paid then more people would apply. Then maybe are halls of government wouldn’t be so overwhelmingly privileged. I know exactly one person that did it and it was costing his family upwards of $3500 a month to support him while he was in DC and this was in 1998. Can you shell out that money for your kids without a wince? How many of you would tell your kids that you couldn’t afford to send them to do that? Most of us. Reality check, most of us can’t do that. And my family was not poor. We were solid middle class. What do you think the effect is when an entire subset of citizens is functionally denied this “special training ground“ for political careers? What effect do you think that has on the diversity? And I’m not just talking about racial diversity but purely economic diversity. This elite class isn’t one made up of special skills. The elite class is made purely on monetary background. And one big reason for that is because we don’t pay interns. You cannot call yourself egalitarian, you cannot call yourself fair-minded, and know that you have excluded 90% of the possible candidates purely on their ability to put up the money just to live there. PAY THE INTERNS!

    Like (10)
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  • Cosmosis
    Voted Yes
    12/05/2018
    ···

    Congressional interns should be paid a living wage. For that matter, *every* American should be paid a living wage.

    Like (9)
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  • Emily
    Voted Yes
    12/05/2018
    ···

    By not paying staffers you limit the people that are able to be staffers to people that can afford to live without pay. Thus continuing the cycle of only rich family’s being in Congress.

    Like (9)
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  • Jennifer
    Voted Yes
    12/05/2018
    ···

    Absolutely. The deserve benefit packages, too, while they are employed. If you have to cut your own bloated salaries or not take a raise for a while to work it out then so be it. I think you’ll all manage.

    Like (8)
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  • collins1129
    Voted Yes
    12/05/2018
    ···

    Everyone deserves a living wage. By paying living wages, we also allow more diverse individuals to become involved in politics.

    Like (6)
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  • John
    12/05/2018
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    Yes everyone deserves to make a liveable wage.

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  • Jeanne
    12/05/2018
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    Yes, all interns should be paid at least $15/hr.

    Like (5)
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  • Eddie
    Voted Yes
    12/05/2018
    ···

    I strongly believe that all interns should be paid a living wage. As long as they are giving a significant amount of their time, it’s unreasonable to say they’re being paid in “experience”. I urge you to please pay all of your interns at least $15/hour, and to support legislation in Congress requiring that interns be paid.

    Like (5)
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  • Clayton
    Voted Yes
    12/05/2018
    ···

    The president makes like 300,000 a year for the rest of his life so why the hell can we not have interns to have a living wage? Even BERNIE SANDERS paid his interns above minimum-wage.

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  • Rochelly
    Voted Yes
    12/06/2018
    ···

    Unpaid internships in any field sets an unfair standard. Only kids that are well off can afford to take internships that don’t pay. It good internships are only accessible to those who can, other kids may choose food or paying a bill before having an opportunity of a lifetime. This is not leveling the plane field, it’s only widening it.

    Like (4)
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  • David
    Voted Yes
    12/05/2018
    ···

    All full time workers in the United States should be paid a livable wage.

    Like (4)
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