Mic Investigation: About 90% of US House members don’t pay their interns

ByWill Drabold and James Dennin

In March, Mic found that fewer than half of U.S. senators pay their interns: Details are listed in a report you can read here. Then, this summer, Mic investigated the intern policies for all 435 voting members of the U.S. House of Representatives to see how the other chamber of Congress stacked up: The results were even starker.

Only about 10% of Republican House offices and 4% of Democrats’ offices — or about 8% overall — regularly offer paid internships. These figures are roughly in line with those in a report in June from labor advocacy group Pay Our Interns. And even when you include those House members offering a mix of unpaid and paid internships, or who connect interns to outside funding or scholarships, the proportion with paid interns is still less than 14% of the total.

This is a big problem for anyone who cares about socio-economic diversity in government, said Carlos Vera, a former unpaid congressional intern who in 2016 launched Pay Our Interns. Conservative estimates peg the cost of living the intern life in a city like Washington, D.C., north of $6,000, once you factor in costs of living for housing, food and transportation — and college credit doesn’t pay the bills.

“I was 17, working in Congress 30 hours a week and doing two part-time jobs” on the side, Vera said, describing his experience in an interview with Mic. “I was lucky that I was able to do it, but I was struggling to stay awake.”

How much money do the small number of paid interns actually get? Few House member programs specify clearly on their websites, with some exceptions: Interns in Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney’s office, for example, receive $1,500 per month. Flat stipends from outside groups like the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute range from $2,500 to $4,000. (In the Senate, hourly intern wages range between $10 and $12 per hour, and flat stipends vary from $1,600 to $5,000.)

The concern, Vera said, is that unpaid internships can create a circular effect: When only those who can afford to work for free get to learn the inner ropes of government, government works better for those privileged groups.

“Government shapes policy,” Vera said. “If you just have well-off interns, they’ll then become staffers, and that matters because staffers are helping to decide how much goes to [the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children], food stamps, roads. It’s imperative to have people from different walks of life at that table.”

Only about 10% of Republican House offices and 4% of Democrats’ offices — or about 8% overall — compensate their interns.

Advocates against unpaid internships blame them in part for the lack of socio-economic and other types of diversity in government intern classes, an issue that has gained notice recently. In July 2016, House Speaker Paul Ryan’s internship selfie went viral for its notable lack of people of color; on July 24, a photograph of the White House interns — hired through a separate system from congressional interns but also unpaid — went viral for similar reasons.

Vera further pointed out that the lack of paid opportunities on Capitol Hill is a relatively recent problem: For two decades, the Lyndon Baines Johnson internship program allocated funds to congressional offices to hire one two-month intern every year. That program was cut so abruptly in 1994, according to a Washington Post report, that offices were left scrambling to come up with funds to pay interns they’d already hired for the summer season.

Since then, paid internships have dried up: One congressional staffer, who asked to be unnamed to protect his job and employer, jokingly called Capitol Hill the “best place in the world for free labor.”

To be fair, it is easy to see how congressional offices, often strapped for cash, have trouble making paid internships a priority. Annual budgets for House member offices vary, but come in around $1.3 million each for 2017, according to House documentation. That sum has to pay for a lot, including travel, a dozen or more staff, mail to constituents, office expenses like rent and more.

When he resigned from Congress, former Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz suggested that budgets are too small. “Washington, D.C., is one of the most expensive places in the world,” Chaffetz told the Hill. “There are dozens upon dozens of members living in their offices, and I don’t know how healthy that is long term.”

Indeed, nearly half of congressional staffers said they planned to find a different job within the following year, according to a 2013 study from Congressional Management Foundation and the Society for Human Resource Management, with many of those surveyed citing low pay. If your full-time staff is justifiably angling for a raise, it gets harder to justify using funds on temporary workers who are often receiving college credit for their efforts. And, of course, increasing budgets to pay interns could potentially cost taxpayers.

One congressional staffer jokingly called Capitol Hill the “best place in the world for free labor.”

Still, the movement to pay congressional interns is gaining momentum on both sides of the aisle. Audrey Henson, a former Republican congressional staffer, recently launched “College to Congress” to help bring more socio-economic diversity to the Hill, as she said in an interview with Mic. Her organization partners with 27 offices to place interns in unpaid positions, and then picks up the tab. The program is available to only those who qualify for federal student aid, but comes with a housing, food, travel and clothing allowance. Members of that program also get matched with a mentor from the opposite political party.

“I really have two main goals: One is to immediately impact young people’s lives,” Henson said, “but that’s not what really changes the policy coming out of America. What changes the policy is bringing those kids back, and helping them become staffers and move up the ladder, and using those bipartisan connections to reach across the aisle ... If we think of an issue like welfare reform — how many people in Congress do you think have experienced [welfare]?”

Other congressional offices are finding different pathways to better funding for internships. Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) is reportedly working on a bill to make it easier to add interns to the congressional payroll. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) also recently announced that his office was able to find enough wiggle room in the budget to pay all of this summer interns a $500 stipend.

To see if your House representative pays interns, check out the full list of internships below. Entries marked “sometimes” mean that the office may employ a mix of paid and unpaid internships. Offices that don’t have a formal internship program listed online are marked “N/A,” including those for recently elected freshmen House members and the unfilled Utah seat vacated this year by Chaffetz.

See the full list here.

Wednesday, Aug. 9, 10:15 a.m. Eastern: This story has been updated.

Sign up for the Payoff — your weekly crash course on how to live your best financial life.