The High Cost of Free Labor on Capitol Hill

Congress will have to study the effect of this long-standing practice, while renewed attention to the issue is bringing it out of the shadows.

Mark Wilson / Getty

Congress failed to grapple with many, many important issues in this year’s legislative battles. But when lawmakers at last rammed through the $1.3-trillion budget-busting omnibus last month, they did manage to tuck in a little extra something for themselves. Specifically, the agreement included a 9 percent bump in funding for senators’ office expenses (staff, travel, mail, office equipment, etc.).

Now, as senators would be the first to tell you, senators are very important people with a mound of very important responsibilities on their plates. No doubt, they can think of countless pressing needs on which to spend the additional cash. But one scrappy, not-quite-two-year-old nonprofit group, called Pay Our Interns, has popped up to crusade for a very specific usage: paying congressional interns.

Don’t roll your eyes! Unpaid Hill internships are not some niche problem burdening only well-heeled, well-connected, sedulously careerist 18-to-24-year-old Mitch McConnell wannabes. Reeking of congressional entitlement and hypocrisy, the current system is a broad-spectrum outrage.

For starters, it is fundamentally elitist. Washington, D.C., has one of the nation’s highest costs of living. What kind of young person can swing a multi-month internship here with zero financial compensation? Hint: not ones whose families hail from the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum. This equal-opportunity argument is, in fact, central to Pay Our Interns’s campaign. (Its founder, Carlos Mark Vera, is himself a former Hill intern.) Congressional internships open doors for young people interested in political careers. Surely those advantages should extend beyond affluent kids already drowning in advantages. As Pay Our Interns notes on its website: “A student’s socioeconomic status should not be a barrier to getting real-world work experience.” Translation: Lawmakers can yammer on about the value of diversity and about their desire to help Americans from all backgrounds, but until they stop treating interns like feudal serfs, their applicant pools are going to continue to be about as diverse as a cast-reunion of Beverly Hills 90210.

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.

Making matters worse, since unpaid congressional interns are, by definition, not employees, they do not enjoy the same protections against discrimination and harassment. They are, however, often required to sign strict nondisclosure agreements. It’s as though someone set out to create the perfect petri dish for mistreatment of the Hill’s youngest and most powerless. What could possibly go wrong?

Before going any further, it is important to note that not all lawmakers approach interns the same way. Every Hill office is its own mini-fiefdom, and many members choose to compensate at least some of their interns some of the time. Helpfully, Pay Our Interns crunched the data and issued a report last year on who does what.

For instance, Senator Heidi Heitkamp and Representative Devin Nunes pay their interns. Representative Elise Stefanik and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer do not. Senator Tim Scott pays his fall and spring interns but not his summer ones, while Senator Tom Carper pays only summer interns. Representative Adam Smith pays one intern per session. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and Representative Betty McCollum opt for stipends, as does Senator Jim Inhofe—though in his case only in the summer. Pay rates, of course, vary widely. Senator Bernie Sanders pays interns $15 per hour, while Orrin Hatch’s hourly rate is $7.50.

And before you ask: No, lawmakers from the Democratic “mommy party” are not, on the whole, taking better care of their young charges. Republican members are, in fact, significantly more likely to pay interns than are their Democratic counterparts. Not that either team is covering itself in glory. Pay Our Interns found that 51 percent of Republican senators pay interns vs. only 32 percent of Democrats. The numbers are vastly more pathetic in the less posh House, where only 8 percent of Republicans and 3.6 percent of Democrats pay.

It’s not as though unpaid internships are a time-honored Hill tradition. As Washington Monthly recently recounted in its deep-dive on the subject, until the 1990s, paying interns was the norm. (During his turn as a Hill intern in 1969, Chuck Schumer got paid.) Following the 1973 death of Lyndon Johnson, Congress set up and funded an internship program in his honor, which provided money for each House office to provide respectable intern stipends. But, under the deficit-cutting, government-squeezing fever of the Clinton years, hyper-charged by the rise of Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolutionaries, government programs and staff were cut; office budgets were slashed; outsourcing became all the rage. Thus emerged the golden era of unpaid congressional labor.

Fiscal responsibility is all well and good. But it’s not as if this Congress has shown much commitment to budget discipline in general. (See: monster tax cuts and the omnibus.) Pinching pennies by clinging to a labor loophole specifically designed to let lawmakers get away with stuff the private sector cannot seems like a dubious way to show one’s seriousness. Plus, there’s the little matter of perpetuating a system fundamentally skewed in favor of the economically privileged.

Every couple of years someone notices Congress’s intern scam and tries to rally support for change. Among the more outspoken advocates to emerge has been Senator Chris Van Hollen, who went so far as to propose a new federal program for funding Hill interns. His proposal has yet to catch fire. Since arriving on the scene in 2016, Pay Our Interns has goosed a handful of lawmakers into getting on the right side of the issue.

Of course, in Congress, studying a problem is often a way to avoid doing anything about it. So advocates like Pay Our Interns are wise to flog the issue whenever an opportunity—like the omnibus—arises. (Last Friday, the congressional newspaper Roll Call gave over its homepage to a half dozen intern-themed pieces.)

Lawmakers can be impressively hard to shame. But that just makes it all the more vital to keep at it.