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.