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Opinion: We Can’t Afford Not to Pay Interns

This issue is too important to ignore, Sen. Chris Van Hollen writes

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., is highlighting language in the spending deal that gives a cost-of-living adjustment to federal workers. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., is highlighting language in the spending deal that gives a cost-of-living adjustment to federal workers. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Capitol Hill interns have been an institution within an institution since I first worked for Congress in the late 1980s — and long before. From answering phones, to helping constituents, to legislative research, they are a vital part of any congressional office. I know my team could not function without them, and we are thankful for their tireless work.

But our thanks aren’t enough — we need to provide compensation for these hardworking young people.

Interning for a member of Congress gives students invaluable experience that they can use in their future professional careers. Students have the opportunity to see the legislative process and inner workings of an office firsthand.

Not only does a Capitol Hill internship give students networking and mentorship opportunities, but it can lay the groundwork for their future ambitions. In many congressional offices, previous Hill experience is a de facto requirement — and internships are a great way to get a leg up when applying for entry-level positions.

While obtaining internship experience is certainly beneficial to both the job candidate and the hiring office, many congressional internships are unpaid. This means that this opportunity is out of reach for young Americans who simply do not have the financial means to dedicate an entire semester or summer to a congressional internship without pay. For many young people, summer is a time to earn money to help cover the costs of college. And even if that isn’t the case, Washington, D.C., is one of the most expensive places to live in the country — and even if they try to work on top of their internship, the costs put it out of reach for too many.

[Van Hollen Vouching for All Congressional Interns to Get Paid]

There is no question that this burden disproportionately affects low-income students and people of color. It’s unfair to the young people who miss out on these opportunities, and it severely limits the pool of applicants for congressional internships.

But the consequences go far beyond restricting access. Since many congressional offices hire full-time staff based on internship experiences, the door is shut on future opportunities for permanent, paid positions for students who are unable to afford to spend months working at an unpaid internship.

This is not acceptable. This issue is too important to ignore.

I’ve made the decision to pay our interns — despite our tight office budgets. I know some of my colleagues do the same. But a survey done last summer by Mic found that less than half of U.S. Senate offices and only 10 percent of U.S. House offices pay their interns. Clearly, we have more to do. That’s why I’m working to encourage the Congress to set up a system that makes congressional internships accessible to all students who are qualified and want to intern on Capitol Hill. These internships are incredibly competitive — and they should remain so. But no student should miss out on this opportunity due to financial hardship.

As a member of the Senate Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee, I have worked on this issue with the help of ranking member Chris Murphy, who introduced a proposal to fund need-based pay for interns that was rejected by party-line vote.

While I was disappointed in this vote, I authored a provision to move the ball forward — requiring the committee to study how paid internships might provide opportunities “to the broadest possible pool of candidates.” It was agreed to on a bipartisan basis and was included in the fiscal 2018 appropriations bill for both the Senate and the House. I am pleased that my colleagues share a commitment to providing wider opportunity for Senate internships.

[Take 5: Chris Van Hollen]

As we take a closer look at this issue, it is clear that financial hardship is a barrier that Congress must act to overcome. In the 1970s and 1980s, the majority of congressional offices paid their interns some form of stipend. The House had the Lyndon Baines Johnson Congressional Internship Program, which gave every House office funds to hire interns. But as budgets tightened in the 1990s, the LBJ Program was cut, and offices had a harder time finding funds to pay their interns and staff.

When I talk to my colleagues about this issue, many want to do the right thing — they value their interns, who are frequently constituents who have traveled to Washington to serve. But budgets are tight and there are many demands on offices to serve their constituents.

That’s why I believe we should create a new program, in the model of the LBJ Congressional Internship Program, that would provide stipends for offices to hire interns and make sure that no one is turned away simply because they cannot afford it. In the meantime, I encourage my colleagues to devote a portion of their existing budgets to provide some pay to their interns.

At a time when Congress is stuck in partisan gridlock and dysfunction on so many issues, this should be something on which we can all agree. Ensuring that we provide internships to young people with diverse backgrounds and diverse experiences will help us better serve the American people. Paying our interns will undoubtedly strengthen our institution. And I’ll keep working with my colleagues to make sure that all students — regardless of their financial means — have the opportunity to intern on Capitol Hill.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen is a Democrat from Maryland. In 2017, he was named the Lyndon B. Johnson Congressional Champion by the organization Pay Our Interns.

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