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Pay Our Interns

By Patrick C. Barham Quesada

It’s hard not to be amazed by the monuments dotting our nation’s capital. The structures, in neo-Grecian style, are intended to inspire, to astound, and most importantly, to remind visitors of the foundational principles of democracy’s Greek origins — that a government is of, by, and for the people.

The most amazing of these monuments is the one that houses the 535 members of Congress tasked with writing the laws that govern this country — the most awe-inspiring of the monuments, in my view, because it is a living, breathing structure, whose halls still host discussions that will shape this country’s history and whose chambers still convene the senators and representatives we elect.

On my first day of work as a congressional intern, I was struck by the beauty of its white sandstone and marble walls, giving the buildings and their processes a clean, manicured glow. Even after several months working here, not a day goes by that I am not struck by a sense of awe. But inside those walls lies an army of staff that’s not much more diverse than the walls themselves. This is in large part due to the fact that many offices look to hire people familiar with the hill — those who have interned.

Given that the vast majority of internships in Congress are unpaid, the experience needed to get your foot in the door and to rise through the ranks is open only to those with enough privilege to afford it. Unpaid internships keep out low-income and minority applicants who don’t have the financial security to pay their way through an internship.

Essentially a prerequisite for entry-level congressional jobs, this means that minorities and socioeconomically diverse applicants are also kept out of the process of legislating. If this country truly seeks to build a government of, by, and for the people, it is imperative that Congress strive to include diverse experiences and individuals in its staff, not just those who can afford to take unpaid internships.

Considering that the House of Representatives just passed the Raise the Wage Act in July, it’s especially disheartening to know that even though almost every Democratic representative voted in favor of gradually raising the federal minimum wage to $15 and phasing out the lower tipped wage, those same Democrats were unwilling to extend wage protections to the unpaid staff in their offices. It wouldn’t surprise me if the intern who turned in the Raise the Wage Act itself was unpaid.

This legislation comes after the longest period without an increase in the minimum wage since its inception, and it’s a necessary change. For families across the United States that have to pay for housing, insurance, transportation, utilities, and food, it’s no surprise that making just $7.25 an hour doesn’t cut it anymore. Even the proposed increase would leave Americans working at this wage earning just above supplemental poverty measures.

If American workers cannot live on wages below $15 an hour, how can interns afford to spend their summers in one of the most expensive cities in the country, without getting paid?

The answer is that they can’t.

Unless they have significant financial support from their families or savings, students can’t afford to go several months without getting paid in order to put in 40- to 45-hour weeks to a congressional office.

When opposing efforts to pay interns, Congress members and staffers seem to repeat the same lines: “It’s valuable experience” and “Everyone has to go through it.” If everyone indeed must go through it, it’s imperative that any student has the ability to take one of these internships, if given the opportunity.

Interns play a crucial role in the everyday functions of Congress: writing briefs, interacting with constituents, researching legislation, and especially disseminating information online and through social media. It’s time that congressional offices move to compensate all their staff appropriately for their contributions. Democrats, in particular, must extend their calls for a living wage to those working in their own offices — if not, we are limiting the halls of Congress to the wealthy and privileged.

Patrick C. Barham ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Government concentrator in Pforzheimer House.

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