How the Senate Exploits Unpaid Interns

Barely a third of U.S. senators pay their interns -- and embarrassingly for Democrats, a party focused on workplace welfare, most of them are Republicans.
Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, shown with his interns in July 2012, is one of the few senators who pays his interns -- at least in the summer. (Flickr)

If you walk into any of the 100 Senate offices spread across Capitol Hill, there is one consistent element. Marco Rubio’s furniture won’t be the same as Elizabeth Warren’s and Mark Udall’s landscape photographs won’t match Lindsey Graham’s wall hangings. The ubiquitous fixture of every Senate (and House) office is livelier: the young, sometimes bright-eyed, cohorts of interns that flood the Capitol in the summer.

Across the spectrum of industries, internships have been commonplace for decades, but the unpaid variety has come under close scrutiny only recently, following a number of high-profile incidents challenging the legitimacy of the practice -- long bemoaned by many interns themselves. In June, a federal judge ruled for the first time that Fox Searchlight broke employment laws by not paying interns. Two days later, former interns at Condé Nast, who had been paid at a rate less than $1 an hour, filed suit against the magazine group. Condé Nast has recently revealed it has stopped paying interns altogether. Seeking a more conciliatory approach, interns at The Nation wrote a letter to their editors at the end of July instead of taking legal action, and were later rewarded by a promise of minimum wage. As the case of the unpaid intern garnered national attention, it wouldn’t be long before the national legislature would get its turn. That happened when Jessica Padron, who’s been offered an internship in the office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, took to Indiegogo to crowdfund her otherwise-unpaid internship.

These cases highlight the two major complaints about unpaid internships: First, that equal work deserves equal pay; and second, that unpaid internships exclude those of lower economic status. Reid won’t face the same legal consequences as Fox because Congress exempts itself from normal intern rules under the Congressional Accountability Act, but the story certainly ought to feed public ire over unpaid work on the Hill. Elected leaders’ positions on the issue are important. If there is going to be some sort of legislative change on what some liken to indentured servitude, it’s going to come from Congress.

To see where senators stand, one need look no further than how they operate their own internship programs. The answers, including who pays and who doesn’t, are a little surprising -- and for Democratic defenders of labor fairness, as well as spending-slashing Republicans, they send a warning.

Just seeing where senators keep the information on their internships is telling. While some list internship info under a “Student” tab, most put it in “Service” or “Constituent Service” sections. Bizarrely lumped in with items like flag requests, resources for homeowners, federal resources, and the obligatory “Coffee with Senator X,” internship opportunities are construed as a favor your elected official is doing for you. For example, you can find information on how to intern for Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat under the category of “Help From Joe.”

The argument that Senate offices, and employees nationwide for that matter, make is that the internship is exclusively for the benefit of the intern through educational experience. New Mexico Democrat Martin Heinrich’s website summarizes the sentiments of many offices when it states that “internships are available expressly for the purpose of furthering educational objectives." Others, like Illinois Republican Mark Kirk, are blunter, noting that the internship “provides invaluable resume-building experience.” No matter how it’s phrased, these senators echo the private-sector mantra that interns are gaining instead of giving during their employ. Even though each senator details the litany of services interns are expected to perform, it is somehow understood that a full-time internship is a gift to the student, not the other way around.

But with a full workload -- stacks of mail to open, constituent calls to answer, legislative research to do, and Capitol tours to give -- internships on the Hill offer students the opportunity to give … and give and give. For those around these offices, it seems clear that Senate offices could not operate as they do without their cohort of intern laborers. They constantly supplement and replace work that would be done by staff or legislative assistants -- or by no one at all.

A May column in Roll Call perhaps best exemplifies the use of interns. Titled “Maximizing Intern Contributions In Your Hill Office” the article is a primer on how to milk the most out of your free labor, particularly in today’s economy. As the author explains, “as a result of the budget cuts to congressional offices ... professional interns who contribute to the office’s productivity is not only desirable for congressional offices, it is now an absolute need.” Despite thinly veiled suggestions that congressional internships are purely educational, this sort of strategizing seems to point to another use.

If internships on the Hill might not be purely educational, then, the natural follow-up is to determine how, if at all, interns are being compensated for their service -- and which leaders are rewarding their public servants. The facts: only 35 senators compensate their interns. In most offices, summer interns are expected to gratefully work full-time in exchange for whatever exposure to national politics, and politicians, they might earn.

In an age of recession and sequestration, hiding behind budget restrictions is one easy excuse. Republican Richard Shelby of Alabama writes on his website, “Although I am unable to pay interns due to Senate budget restrictions, I believe that serving as a Congressional intern can prove to be a valuable experience." Unfortunately for him, his junior colleague Jeff Sessions somehow escapes those pesky restrictions by offering “a stipend for our interns, provided in two payments, based on the Senate payroll schedule.”

Among the small group who offer payment, it’s often restricted to specific populations or under limited conditions. Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine and Kentucky Republican Rand Paul, for example, offer academic credit or a stipend, as if the two were mutually exclusive or provided the same benefit. Others, like Arkansas Democrat Mark Pryor and Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe, will pay in the summer but not the fall or spring. North Carolina’s Richard Burr and Nebraska’s Deb Fischer, both Republicans, offer the reverse.

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Stephen Lurie is a writer based in Washington, D.C.

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