Why Interns in Congress Should Not Worry About Pay

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Experience and contacts are priceless…

This was a familiar sight during my morning ritual as a congressional intern commuting to work in the Office of the Majority Leader for the House of Representatives. One of my morning duties was to open the office by 7:00 a.m.

I still vividly recall this high-level internship at age 20 when I was in college — even though it was over 20 years ago. That’s because this single experience had a life-transforming effect on my career trajectory in public service for the federal government.

Therefore, here’s a message for Millennials and Generation Z who are contemplating jobs in government and politics:

As this year’s summer internship season approaches, young people might be thinking about working for Congress in Washington, even though most interns are not paid.

The question arises: Should students consider an unpaid internship in Congress? The answer is yes. Here’s why…

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Career Catalyst

You simply can’t put a dollar value on the invaluable work lessons learned and the VIP connections made — which can serve as a catalyst for future career success. Thus, the following headline in The Washington Post caught my attention:

“Senators have more money now. Will they finally pay their interns?”

The article by Danielle Paquette reports that under the recently passed omnibus budget bill by Congress, there is now more money designated to office operations for lawmakers on Capitol Hill — including staff salaries.

According to the Post:

  • “The pocket money members use for staffing grew from roughly $871 million last year to $920 million for 2018 — a bigger raise (6 percent) than from 2014 to 2017 (1.4 percent)...Most congressional interns aren’t paid at all.”
  • “A study last year by Pay Our Interns found that 51 percent of Republican senators offer paid internships, compared with 31 percent of Democrats.”
  • “House interns fare worse: Only 8 percent of those who work for Republicans and 3.6 percent who work for Democrats get paid.”
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The Upsides

  1. Learning firsthand how the legislative branch of the U.S. Government and the political process work from the inside-out from top congressional staffers.
  2. Forging relationships with top congressional staffers, many of whom are on the verge of skyrocketing to career success in their own right.
  3. Serving your hometown member of Congress, or any congressman or woman, as a call to civic duty — and contributing to positive change at the grassroots level in the member’s district, statewide or nationwide.
  4. Experiencing a highly competitive, fast-paced work environment in which many staffers work grueling hours under very stressful conditions.
  5. Getting to know the member of Congress, at least on an informal level, and receiving a recommendation or reference for a job well done.

These are just some of the many benefits of interning in Congress which supersede pay alone.

The real payoff comes from the unique work experience which few young people get, in addition to the important impact it has on your budding career prospects.

Moreover, as noted above, some congressional offices already pay their interns very small salaries, but that should not necessarily be a prerequisite for taking the job.

Additionally, some university career programs provide a stipend or college credit for your work as a congressional intern, plus help you find low-cost or no-cost housing.

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Interns gather on steps of U.S. Capitol with Leon Panetta — former Calif. Congressman and House Budget Committee Chairman. I worked for him when he was OMB Director for President Bill Clinton.

Final Thoughts

According to The Washington Post article cited above:

“Even political leaders who push for a higher minimum wage expect students to work for them free, advertising the internship as valuable learning experience that could open the door to a prestigious Capitol Hill job.”

Well that’s almost right, albeit with this small caveat:

Some junior and entry level congressional staffers might argue about the “prestige” of the job, due to toiling long-hours in relative obscurity for mediocre pay.

According to the Post, “Junior staffers tend to make about 20 percent less money than their counterparts in the private sector.”

In fact, it’s par for the course to work 10 to 12 hour days as a congressional staffer. This might also include very late nights and weekends depending on the legislative schedule.

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Pictured above: Actor Tom Cruise as “Jerry Maguire” in the blockbuster film of the same name.

If anyone in Congress deserves more money it’s the staff of the 435 House members and 100 members of the Senate who work tirelessly around the clock.

There are thousands of congressional staffers who dutifully sacrifice their personal lives — including precious social and family time — nearly every day of the week while Congress is in session.

Moreover, a break out of the average annual salary for congressional staff, based on hourly pay, would be low considering the long hours worked.

So why do congressional staffers sacrifice so much for these jobs and why should potential interns do the same?

One answer is that congressional staffers want to make a positive difference in the lives of ordinary Americans through the legislative and political process. They are patriotic and idealistic young people carrying out public service for the betterment of the nation.

It’s not about money for congressional staffers, many of whom could make more in other jobs — not to mention having more free time and a healthier work-life balance.

Similarly, getting paid should not be an issue for congressional interns either. That’s because the rewarding experience is priceless.



ABOUT THE AUTHOR: David is a strategic communications consultant, freelance writer and former federal government spokesman based in the Washington, DC-area. His work experience includes the White House, Congress, OMB and EEOC. A native New Yorker, David was a journalist prior to his career of public service. You can also find him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

NOTE: All views and opinions are those of the author only and not official statements or endorsements of any public sector employer, private sector employer, organization or political entity.

Founder of Grinberg Global PR: optimizing strategic comms to effectuate social justice | former spokesman for U.S. EEOC | DC-based, NY-bred.

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