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

by Countable | 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)

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