Congress’s Paid Internships: One Program, 535 Sets of Rules

The main rule for Congress’s internship program is that there aren’t very many rules.

Interns are supposed to be there primarily for an “educational experience.” They are barred from working more than 120 days a year. As of this year, they’re covered under anti-harassment rules (Public Law 115-397).

Beyond that, there are no requirements to pay or provide a stipend, no maximum or minimum hours per week, and no guidelines for who members can hire or fire. Each office gets a $20,000 allowance for paying interns, a sum that may go up in the fall to $25,000 per member office, including leadership offices.

Most interns spend their time working an office’s front desk and answering phones. They’re usually encouraged to attend hearings and markups. Some interns have the chance to help draft amendments or press releases. Others are glorified gofers.

Depending on the office, they might spend lots of time with the lawmaker– or meet them just once.

“In general, the administration of intern programs by congressional offices is not an area where most offices excel,” said Brad Fitch, president of the Congressional Management Foundation, which provides training and research on congressional operations.

“The supervisor is probably last summer’s intern, who has no management experience. Sometimes the members of Congress use the program to grant favors to friends and that’s a disappointment, for the office and for the individual as well.”

The topic of how interns are treated on the Hill is being revisited just as the new summer class is arriving, with the House considering its legislative branch spending bill for fiscal 2020.

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Not Paying the Rent

It’s impossible to say how many interns work on the Hill. House and Senate offices are required to disclose the names and salaries of paid employees, but they aren’t required to disclose any information about unpaid interns.

According to a Bloomberg Government analysis of House disbursements statements, Republican House lawmakers employed 413 paid interns in 2018, handing out a total of about $905,000 in stipends– which includes pay and various allowances. Democrats had 163 paid interns in the same year, paying out around $352,000 total in compensation.

Because House disbursement data doesn’t track the number of days or hours each intern worked, it’s impossible to compare weekly or hourly pay rates between members’ offices.

The data shows that 103 out of 245 Republican House members paid at least one of their interns, or about 42 percent. Meanwhile, a quarter of House Democrats had paid interns working in their offices—a total of 52 out of 202 offices in 2018.

The current legislative branch appropriation (Public Law 115-244) gave $8.8 million to the House and $5 million to the Senate to pay interns in their D.C. offices, which breaks down to $20,000 per House office per year and $50,000 per Senate office per year.

In 2018, House members paid 576 interns, with the average paid intern receiving about $2,200 for two months of work. According to Rent Cafe, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment on Capitol Hill is $2,418 per month.

The average compensation numbers disguise vastly different ways of compensating interns. Most interns are paid with stipends, or flat sums of money. Some are paid hourly. And some only receive travel reimbursements to cover commuting expenses.

“I think it’s up to the offices to implement it,” said Senate Rules and Administration Committee Chairman Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). “I’m not sure if everyone’s using it or implementing it the same way.”

Not Much, But Sometimes Enough

Offices have a lot of wiggle room to determine who gets paid and how much.

“For myself, I’m going to make it available on a needs basis, because it’s not a lot of money,” said House Administration Committee Chair Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.)

But there’s no rule that says offices can’t offer paid internships to wealthier applicants instead.

“They could pay a bunch of donor kids. There’s nothing stopping them from doing that,” Carlos Vera, a co-founder of the advocacy group Pay Our Interns, said in a phone interview.

Others, like Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.), say they offer the same pay same regardless of background.

“We pay all eligible interns the same amount because they’re all doing the same work and we don’t want to means test interns,” chief of staff Lisa Sherman said in an email.

Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.) offers stipends: nearly $29,000 last year on eight interns. One intern in her D.C. office received $6,000 for working from January 11 to May 10.

“I offer a stipend to interns in my DC and district offices so qualified young people don’t have to turn down an opportunity that could benefit them throughout their career,” said Bonamici in an emailed statement.

Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) also offers stipends. Bishop’s office paid 15 interns a total of about $56,000 last year, though their individual stipends vary. One of his interns, for example, received a $2,400 stipend for working from August 20 to December 19. Another intern in Bishop’s office got $5,400 for working from August 27 to December 14.

Brandon Hatch, a current intern for Bishop, said the $1,500 per month stipend allowed him to come to D.C. with his family and work on the Hill.

“It definitely had a significant impact on my decision,” he said in a phone interview. “I think doing an internship creates a good foundation for being qualified for a job here for sure.”

‘Rite of Passage’

Some members of Congress, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) maintain that paying interns hourly is more fair than paying one flat sum.

“We were the first people in the Senate to pay our interns $15 an hour and we’re very proud of that,” said Sanders. “A lot of working class young people are unable to work on Capitol Hill because they got paid zero. If you want to attract working class and middle class kids, they’re going to have to be paid.”

The added money proposed for the intern program for fiscal 2020 comes with only two stipulations: interns must work in the member’s D.C. office, which means the money can’t be used for district offices (even expensive districts like San Francisco or New York City), and those paid through the new program won’t count towards the current four-person cap on interns, fellows, or temporary workers.

Because the new program doesn’t count against the limit on interns, it’s unlikely to cut down on the number of unpaid internships on the Hill.

So why do hundreds of college students flock to the Hill every year competing for positions for little or no pay and few work protections?

Because internships are an indispensable “rite of passage” for anyone hoping to make a career on the Hill, said T.J. Tatum, former adviser to Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and a former intern himself.

“When interviewing for entry-level, full-time positions one of the first questions a candidate will be asked is about their previous Hill experience,” Tatum said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Katherine Scott in Washington at kscott@bgov.com; Madi Alexander in Washington at malexander@bgov.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bernie Kohn at bkohn@bloomberglaw.com