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House members reluctant to respond to survey about intern diversity

Report shows lack of diversity among House interns

A new report showing an ongoing lack of diversity among House interns also shows the extent to which entrenched lawmakers are not interested in providing information about the composition of their staffs.

The report commissioned by the advocacy group Pay Our Interns, which has pushed for Congress to provide paid internship opportunities rather than the traditionally unpaid offerings, found that among responsive House offices, 64 percent of interns were white, compared with 13 percent Black, 11 percent Asian American/Pacific Islander and 5 percent Hispanic/Latino.

The researchers found at least one surprise.

“Interns were three times more likely than the House members to be Asian/Pacific Islander. However, Asian/Pacific Islanders are underrepresented as House members when compared to the national population,” the report said.

While the study showed interns were somewhat more diverse than members of the House themselves, there were significant methodological challenges.

A total of 106 House offices were surveyed in July 2019 through a random sample, but only slightly more than half provided full responses to questions asked for the study, conducted by James R. Jones, currently an assistant professor at the Newark campus of Rutgers University in New Jersey.

The report also bemoans the lack of data from Congress itself about its intern programs.

“There is no institution-wide record keeping about who interns on Capitol Hill or in congressional districts. There is no information about whether these opportunities are allocated equitably to women, racial minorities, or students from less privileged backgrounds,” the report said.

Whether or not member offices responded was not dependent on the party identification of the lawmaker, nor on the member’s race. Rather, the study found statistical significance in response rates based on gender and whether a member was newly elected.

“We found that freshman House members were approximately three times more likely to give a partial or full response than incumbent members. In addition, the offices of female members were three times more likely to give a partial/full response than offices of male members,” the study found. “Finally, the offices of former interns/staffers were almost six times more likely to give a partial or full response than offices of House members with no intern or staffer experience.”

Internships remain a key gateway to employment on Capitol Hill and in a host of other positions in the national capital region, and while the study circulated this week provides a window into the demographics, there are plenty of gaps for further study.

The researchers wrote that they ran into House offices with what they claimed were blanket rules against participating in external surveys.

“Such policies implicitly communicate that Congress is beyond reproach and serve to protect the interests of lawmakers, rather than democratic principles,” the report countered.

For instance, the researchers theorize that offices that actually provided stipends to interns during the summer of 2019 could have been overrepresented in the responses.

“Our findings are based upon the cooperation and transparency of congressional offices, and our survey responses suggest a possible overestimation of the number of paid internships available,” the report said. “To this end, congressional offices who did not offer paid internships in 2019 may have been less likely to cooperate with a study that might bring negative attention to their office.”

For the fiscal year covered by the summer of 2019, House member offices received $20,000 in funds for internship stipends in a separate fund from the Members’ Representational Allowance that provides funding for office operations.

Because the funds were designed to promote more socioeconomic diversity among internships on Capitol Hill, interns paid out of the fund needed to be working in the Washington offices. Interns based in home districts were not eligible.

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