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Congress is crawling with rich kids. I should know, I was one of them

Unpaid internships are breeding a crisis on the Hill

Paying interns would break the cycle of prep school privilege that dominates the Capitol, Freedman writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Paying interns would break the cycle of prep school privilege that dominates the Capitol, Freedman writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

OPINION — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has made headlines for one unprecedented move after another, from primarying a member of the Democratic leadership to introducing a Green New Deal. But perhaps her most shocking decision yet is also one that is painfully obvious: paying her staff and interns a living wage.

See, working for Congress should be an opportunity for Americans of every background to serve their country and elected leaders. Instead, the low — and in the case of interns, often nonexistent — pay for young people on the Hill makes working in Washington, D.C., prohibitively expensive for all but a wealthy and connected few. Or, as Ocasio-Cortez aide Dan Riffle put it when describing the Hill staffers he’s encountered, “These are careerists. These are people who grew up on [New York City’s affluent] Upper West Side and went to Ivy League schools.”

I should know. I was one of them.

In the summer of 2013 I arrived on Capitol Hill to work as an intern for New York Senator, and now presidential candidate, Kirsten Gillibrand. “Work” might be a stretch though — I, like nearly every congressional intern, was unpaid.

Not that that mattered. For an affluent kid who attended a private high school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and then a prestigious liberal arts college, the lack of pay was hardly an issue. My parents cut a check for me to stay in a suite in Georgetown University’s hotel-like law campus (complete with high-end fitness center access), and provided me with an ample stipend for meals and drinks out with my fellow interns.

And who were these fellow interns? An incredibly bright and talented bunch, no doubt. But also, for the most part, a bunch of rich white kids. After all, who else could manage a summer living in one of the country’s most expensive cities on no salary while also working 40 hours a week? My previous summer internship, with Gillibrand’s New York City district office, was even worse. My fellow interns while, again, very bright and motivated, included a luxury lifestyle influencer and the scion of a European aristocrat whose family — yes — still lived in a castle.

And as for young people on the Hill being “careerist”? Despite our official roles processing casework requests from needy New Yorkers who weren’t receiving their federal benefits, us interns sought every opportunity possible to rub shoulders with senior staff and lobbyists at the free receptions that abound in the Capitol swamp. I remember one of my well-off intern peers, at a Q&A with a senior aide to Gillibrand, asking if it was ever frowned upon to move between Democratic and Republican offices. “Idealism” and “activism” are not the words I would use to describe this young man.

Ironically, many of us interns were far more financially secure than our junior staff supervisors, whose wages were in the low $30,000s range — barely enough to survive on in expensive cities like New York or Washington, where rents average more than $2,000 a month. In fact, one New York City caseworker still lived with her parents in New Jersey, commuting in since her pay was so paltry. It’s not surprising, then, that congressional staffing is often followed by the infamous “revolving door” of lobbying in the private sector, a dynamic rightly held up by many as harmful to democracy.

All workers, whether in the public or private sector, intern or staffer, deserve a living wage. Congressional offices must be no exception. In fact, they of all workplaces should set an example: fair pay on Capitol Hill ensures that those serving the American people — literally, the aides who pass on the messages of constituents to their elected representatives — are representative of the diversity of our country as a whole.

Ocasio-Cortez’s office policy, which pays interns $15 an hour and staffers no less than $52,000 a year, is a good start. But the real problem is that congressional office budgets — the funds from which elected officials pay their staffers — have stagnated in recent years. Congress has taken steps toward improvement, including ordering an internal study of congressional salaries. But office appropriations are simply too low and must be raised.

And that’s just the beginning. Congress should follow in the footsteps of the United Nations, which adjusts the base salary for aides relative to local cost of living, and reimburses staff income tax payments. Such measures may seem shocking, but considering the threat to democracy caused by the Hill-to-K Street pipeline, ensuring competitive wages with the private sector should be a patriotic mandate.

Because trust me, no one wants spoiled rich kids running their government. And I should know.

Aaron Freedman works at an economics research group based in New York. Follow him @freedaaron.

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