An intern for Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) waits for a tour group at the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center in 2013. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

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

Jul 07, 2017

This opinion editorial was originally published in The Washington Post on July 7, 2017.

By Carlos Vera

Former congressman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) made headlines when he said members of Congress should receive a monthly $2,500 housing stipend.

Days before retiring from the House, he argued that members of Congress often have to pay for housing in their home town and in the District. Chaffetz has a point; the District is the second-most-unaffordable city when it comes to housing. His $174,000 annual salary, however, is more than enough for him to live comfortably in the District.

Now, imagine having to live in the same city as the congressman, but instead of his comfortable six-figure salary, you’re making $0.

Who works and makes no money? Interns.

Every summer, thousands of students from across the country come to Washington to intern in Congress. With housing, food and transportation hitting $6,000, the cost of a summer congressional internship is prohibitive for many of our nation’s students.

But because interning on Capitol Hill is considered a rite of passage for anyone who wants to pursue a career in politics, members of Congress know they can get away with not paying their interns, hiding behind the cliched excuse that interns will gain “invaluable work experience.” Often overlooked: Only some students can afford to take unpaid internships, especially in cities where they don’t already live.

The experience interns receive while working for free has created an elitist, harmful system at the heart of our republic.

Unpaid internships make the point of entry into politics out of reach for college students who cannot afford to work for free. Students are left with the choice of forgoing valuable experience, taking out loans or working side jobs.

As a 17-year-old interning for my congressman, I devoted 25 hours per week to my internship, 20 hours to my part-time job and 16 to earning college credits.

There were days at my internship where it felt as if my eyelids had 50-pound weights attached to them.

The sad reality is that students from low-income families can’t participate in the congressional internship experience. That makes the vast majority of Hill interns students from wealthy families who can afford to put their children up in the District during the summer.

Because interning on the Hill is an unspoken prerequisite to working on the Hill after graduation, this means that the legislative-staffer jobs almost exclusively go to students from wealthy backgrounds.

This affects policy and your community.

Staffers wield power in many ways most Americans don’t know about. They craft policy, advise members on what to vote for and even help craft the federal budget. They are the eyes, ears and sounding boards for every member of Congress.

Can we really be a representative democracy when the elite few are writing laws? Can we close the racial wealth gap when most internships go to students with the same economic background? Will we have a truly diverse Congress if, year after year, interns look the same?

These are the questions our members of Congress must ask.

The inequality inherent in congressional internships is why I decided to found Pay Our Interns, a bipartisan nonprofit that advocates for paid internships in the public, private and nonprofit sectors.

Last week, we released our report on who pays — Chaffetz did — and who doesn’t, because Americans should know which members are relying on unpaid labor.

Fortunately, there is a solution. From 1974 to 1993, the Lyndon B. Johnson congressional intern program funded thousands of internships that allowed students from all walks of life to participate in our legislative process firsthand. That program gave students the ability to intern without worrying about paying their bills.

If members of Congress care about our young people and about having a diverse and healthy democracy, then they will do the right thing and start paying their interns.

We should expect more from our members of Congress, whether it’s through a program such as the LBJ internships or by setting aside money in the office budget for a stipend (as many lawmakers do).

They need to show their constituents that they care about having the same diversity that exists in their districts and states in their offices on Capitol Hill.

The writer is the founder of Pay Our Interns and previously interned for free in Congress, the European Parliament and the White House.