When Congress Paid Its Interns: THE SAME INSTITUTIONAL PENNY-PINCHING THAT HAS DEVASTATED CONGRESSIONAL STAFF HAS ALL BUT WIPED OUT PAID INTERNSHIPS, WITH PERNICIOUS CONSEQUENCES FOR WASHINGTON AND FOR AMERICAN DEMOCRACY.

Author:Desai, Saahil
 
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When I met Kendall on a November Sunday afternoon in a downtown D.C. bar, she had just finished her shift serving appetizers and drinks for a catering company. An energetic Southern California native, Kendall splits her time between the serving job and the one she actually came to D.C. to pursue: an internship on Capitol Hill.

Kendall, who is being identified by her middle name so she can speak openly about her internship, is just the type of young person any congressional office should be eager to employ. She's articulate, shrewd, and a voracious reader (when we first met, she was paging through a tattered copy of The Culture of Narcissism, by the late political theorist Christopher Lasch). Kendall--whose father sells orthopedic implants and whose mother is a babysitter--grew up in La Verne, in far east Los Angeles County, excelled at school, and attended Pomona College with significant financial aid, graduating last May. The work she's doing in Congress, for two California Democratic House members, is mostly clerical--compiling news clips, sorting mail, answering calls from constituents. But she has also been given some higher-order tasks that put her closer to the action. "It was really cool to see a press release go out with what I had written," she said.

The internship, however, is unpaid, and because her parents can't afford to bankroll her, she has had to make sacrifices to make her stint on the Hill viable. To cut down on expenses, Kendall takes a grinding hour-and-a-half commute, on two separate buses, from the Arlington, Virginia, apartment she shares with two roommates to the Rayburn House Office Building, where she works. She could take the Metro and zip to work in thirty minutes, but during rush hour that would cost $3.25 each way, while a weekly bus pass costs her just $17.50. On days when she works her second job, she might not get home before 11 p.m.

Her parents try to help out when they can, but still Kendall says that she spends just $25 per week on groceries--"I eat lots of pasta," she said. And the requirement that she wear business attire every day has strained her thin budget even more. "For me, it was hard because I didn't have much of a business wardrobe," she said. "So I went to the thrift store and bought a blazer for $8. It didn't fit me right, but it was the best I could find."

Up to 40,000 interns flock to the nation's capital annually, working temporary stints in government, journalism, think tanks, and lobbying. By far the highest concentration of interns is on Capitol Hill. Visit on a muggy summer day, and you're sure to see "Hillterns" in their recognizable ill-fitting suits, struggling to find the nearest Metro station.

Nationwide, about half of all internships are unpaid, even as they are now a nearly mandatory credential for gaining an entry-level job in many white-collar professions. Congress is especially bad: in the House, only 8 percent of Republicans and 4 percent of Democrats compensate even one of their many interns, according to Pay Our Interns, an advocacy organization that tracks payment for interns on the Hill. The partisan difference is partly due to the fact that the GOP is in the majority and can allocate more funds to its members, but it's still a bad look for liberal politicians who claim to stand for fair pay and higher wages. The situation is better in the Senate, though the disparity isn't, at least not by much: fifty-one Republicans and thirty-one Democrats offer at least a stipend for at least one intern each year. Still, the great majority of Senate interns are unpaid, and among the minority who are paid, the level of compensation varies widely by office. Bernie Sanders admirably pays all his interns $15 an hour, while Republican Orrin Hatch pays half that, just $7.50 an hour.

Unpaid internships are burdensome anywhere, but especially so in Washington, D.C. For renters, D.C. ranks as the seventh most expensive city in the world. The total cost of a three-month unpaid internship in cities like D.C. and New York can inch toward $6,000 once you factor in such variables as rent, food, and transportation.

As a result, Capitol Hill internships are increasingly opportunities...

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