Pay Congressional interns

Unpaid Congressional internships limit opportunities for students who want to work on the Hill - and limit the talent pool for Hill offices.

Image credit: Getty

As Washington readies itself for the start of a new Congress, it’s unclear what – if anything – the two parties might agree on. But here’s one proposal for 2015 and beyond that could win broad support: paying interns on Capitol Hill.

“Paying Congressional interns isn’t just a matter of fairness… By not paying interns, Capitol Hill is also shortchanging its own future talent pool.”
For the past 31 years, about twenty students have come to the nation’s capital each spring as part of the University of Kansas Washington Intern Program.  Each year, several of these students accept internships off Capitol Hill.

For some, it’s because of very specific interests, such as the environment, communications or law enforcement, that are better served in other contexts.

But others must seek out opportunities off the Hill for one reason: most Hill offices do not pay interns, and the students cannot afford to come to Washington unpaid.

Many students who want to work on Capitol Hill can only do so if they or their parents can afford four months of Washington expenses.  For a student at the University of Kansas, the cost of working as an intern in Washington – including travel, housing, tuition and cost of living in D.C.- is about $10,000. The University does everything it can to keep costs down, but it is still a lot of money.

When this program started in 1984, Washington was more expensive to live in than Lawrence, Wichita or Pratt, Kansas – but many middle-class students and their families could still afford unpaid Hill internships.   Today this is less true, as tuition and other costs have continued to rise. In fact, for many of our students who have to work while in school, full-time unpaid internships – which are among the most valuable ways to gain work experience – are off the table altogether.

Most offices on Capitol Hill do not pay interns because budgets are stretched thin – a situation that sequestration and concerns over the size of the federal deficit have only worsened.  And for any employer, taking advantage of free labor makes sense.

But it doesn’t change the fact that this arrangement is creating a system of haves and have-nots, where students from wealthy families have a leg up on those from more modest backgrounds because they can afford to intern on Capitol Hill.  Without question, students who intern on Capitol Hill will have an easier time finding employment in Congress when they graduate compared to recent college graduates who lack that experience.

But not paying Congressional interns isn’t just a matter of fairness – offices do after all benefit from the labor – or of expanding opportunities for more young people. By not paying interns, Capitol Hill is also shortchanging its own future talent pool.

For example, National Journal found in 2012 that fewer than 10 percent of staff on Capitol Hill are non-white.

Paying interns – many of whom will be future Capitol Hill employees – could help increase staff diversity in the House and Senate by broadening the pool of interns and potential staff applicants.

Some members – such as Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) – do appreciate the benefits of paying interns and set the standard for others to follow.

Sen. Moran pays his interns a fair wage, and his generosity has allowed many students who otherwise would not have been able to do so to get internships on Capitol Hill. In fact, more than one Democrat from Kansas has interned in his office because of this generous policy.

At our yearly visits with Sen. Moran, he has told the internship group that he believes it is important to pay interns because he himself, as a young man, would not have been able to come to Washington and intern in the Senate without being paid.

And more likely than not, Sen. Moran’s willingness to compensate his interns means that future leaders in Kansas may also be able to say they got their start in politics – or in many other professions — by working in his office.

We also both got our start in political life on Capitol Hill: one as a Congressional fellow with Sen. Paul Simon and the other as an intern with Sen. Richard Durbin.  Without these opportunities, more likely than not, we would not be where we are today.

Paying interns would not be unprecedented. As recently as 1993, students all over the country came to Capitol Hill for a paid internship under the Lyndon Baines Johnson Internship program. Sadly, this program, which for almost 20 years allowed each office to hire a summer intern for two months, was eliminated to deal with the budget crunch of the early 1990s.

Perhaps in the new Congress, the House and the Senate can come together and find money in our federal budget to pay interns on Capitol Hill. Even something modest would be welcome.

If Congress can ensure that future Kansans – and all Americans – can afford to work on Capitol Hill as interns, the benefits will accrue not just to students who want to come to Washington to serve their country but to the good of our body politic as a whole.

Political Science Professor Burdett Loomis of the University of Kansas and Gary Meltz, a communications professional in Washington, direct the Washington Intern Program at the University of Kansas.