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Groups call on Senate to dedicate funds for committee interns

House allocated funds in 2021 to pay committee interns, but Senate hasn’t followed suit

Groups wrote to Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Deb Fischer, R-Neb., seeking funds set aside for committee interns.
Groups wrote to Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Deb Fischer, R-Neb., seeking funds set aside for committee interns. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Pay Our Interns, an advocacy group, and five other organizations are calling on Senate appropriators to set aside at least $7 million in the coming budget year to compensate committee interns.

The groups sent a letter Wednesday to Senate Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Jack Reed, D-R.I., and ranking member Deb Fischer, R-Neb., requesting the dedicated funds to equal the allotment for interns working in personal member offices. 

“By providing appropriate compensation, committees can foster a more inclusive and diverse internship program that attracts individuals from different socioeconomic backgrounds, ensuring broader representation and a much-needed fresh perspective within the Senate,” the letter states.

College to Congress, Demand Progress, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, the Modernization Staff Association and Representative Democracy also signed, as did Lorelei Kelly, from Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy.

Pay our Interns, co-founded by Carlos Mark Vera in 2016 after his own unpaid House internship, has been prodding lawmakers to ensure these workers are compensated.

The group scored a victory in 2018, when Congress passed legislation that allocated $20,000 to each House office and an average of $50,000 per Senate office for D.C. intern stipends. But those funds, which total $7 million on the Senate side in the current fiscal year, apply only to those working in individual member offices.

The House allocated funds in 2021 to pay committee interns, but the Senate hasn’t done so.

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, has sent letters to Senate appropriators calling for dedicated funds to address this disparity. The latest letter, sent in March, was signed by 14 Democratic senators and Vermont independent Bernie Sanders. Notable among the supporters is Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who chairs the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, which has oversight of congressional organization relative to rules and procedures.

Fischer is the ranking member on Senate Rules as well. Neither she nor Reed could be reached for comment Wednesday.

“Currently, most unpaid interns must either be financially supported by their families or hold second jobs in order to afford to work in the Senate,” the senators wrote. “We must enable all individuals to have the financial freedom to serve as interns without undue hardship. By doing so, we will provide a stepping stone to full-time positions in the Senate.”

Those opposed to allocating separate funds to compensate Senate committee interns have argued they could be paid out of members’ personal office funds, Vera said in an interview Wednesday. But resources within personal offices are limited and the result is many committee interns receive no compensation, or work in exchange for college credits.

Often it’s graduate-level students, many of whom are in law programs and fill legal positions with terms as long as a year, who are impacted by this lack of funding, Vera said. Many rely on their colleges to sponsor their internship, which creates a pool of applicants predominantly from well-resourced, elite institutions, according to Vera.

“If you’re going to an Ivy League law school then yes, they have the funding if you want to do a public service internship,” Vera said. “But if you’re going to a law school that’s a [historically Black college or university], a [minority-serving institution], or a state school that’s not always the case.”

The request comes during a showdown over the budget. House conservatives are looking to cap spending at fiscal 2022 levels, while Senate appropriators last week advanced spending bills with higher toplines consistent with the debt limit deal reached in May by Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and President Joe Biden

Lawmakers in both chambers will have to reconcile their differences to pass a fiscal 2024 spending package and avoid a government shutdown, which some Republicans have threatened. Funding for interns could get caught in the crossfire, Vera said.

“We’re really concerned with this whole budget battle and these talks about cuts,” Vera said. “This could impact interns and this is not the time to divest funding in talent, which, frankly, Capitol Hill sorely needs to operate and function.”

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