As Congress Starts Paying Its Interns, Pa. Lawmakers Figure Out Who Gets What
Before interning at former Congressman Charlie Dent’s Capitol Hill office, Danny Reeves spent the first half of the summer stashing away cash from his job at a restaurant in his native Hershey and asking friends if he could crash with them in D.C.
The experience in Dent’s Washington office was unpaid but invaluable. Reeves answered phones, gave tours and got an up-close view of how legislation comes together, gaining an important line on his resume for seeking a full-time congressional gig after he graduates from Wake Forest University this month.
“What it does for your resume, that is very big, and bigger than monetary funds,” Reeves said.
Reeves soon may return to the Hill as an intern — and this time, Congress has money set aside specifically to pay him and other legislative interns.
Federal lawmakers approved $14 million last fall for intern pay, a down payment on a major culture shift in Washington. Pennsylvania legislators say they’re beginning to spend their share of the money, but some are still sorting out the math on the number of interns expected during the year and the varying schedules they will work.
Internships with a member of Congress open doors to future jobs in politics and policy, but the vast majority of intern opportunities have been unpaid. That limits the applicant pools to those with the financial resources to support themselves for several months in a notoriously expensive city.
The money earmarked in last year’s spending bill resulted in part from public pressure brought by Pay Our Interns, a nonprofit group advocating for more paid internships. The group’s 2017 report found that more than 90 percent of House members didn’t pay their interns.
In the Senate, 51 percent of Republicans and 31 percent of Democrats paid their interns some level of compensation.
Only two of Pennsylvania’s congressional members offered any sort of paid intern opportunities at that time. Democratic Sen. Bob Casey’s office has had two positions that paid weekly stipends. In the south-central Pennsylvania district represented by Republican Rep. Scott Perry, a nonprofit organization founded in 1977 has paid interns who work in the local lawmaker’s district and D.C. offices each summer.
This year, each U.S. House member has $20,000 available to pay its interns, and lawmakers have proposed boosting that next year to $25,000 per office. In the Senate, the amounts vary by state, but Pennsylvania’s two lawmakers received roughly $56,000 apiece.
Months after the money was approved, those dollars are finally starting to show up in interns’ wallets.
The Morning Call reached out to each of Pennsylvania’s 19 congressional offices to see how the delegation is spending its intern funding. Staffers for both senators and six House members responded with details on their intern programs, with most saying they’re already using the money or will do so when their summer interns arrive shortly.
Republican Sen. Pat Toomey’s office says all of its summer interns — seven in D.C. and six in Pennsylvania — will be paid. Toomey spokesman Steve Kelly would not say how much they will receive.
Casey’s office will have 15 paid internships in D.C., and those interns will receive the local minimum wage of $13.25 per hour, Casey spokesman Andres Anzola said. Those are in addition to the two paid internships that the office has funded out of its general budget since 2007.
Casey’s interns in Pennsylvania will be unpaid, and the office will offer additional unpaid internships in D.C. “to students whose circumstances allow them to accept an unpaid internship,” Anzola said.
On the House side, the intern money comes with some restrictions. Offices can only use the money to pay their D.C. interns, and interns can’t be paid more than $1,800 apiece per month.
That adds some complexity for legislative offices, particularly Democrats, who have backed a $15-per-hour minimum wage. Asked about intern compensation, a spokesman for Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-Montgomery County, noted the $1,800-per-month limit, which an intern would hit if they work 30 hours a week.
“That said, for those we can, we are paying $15 per hour,” Dean spokesman Matthew Bieber said.
All of Dean’s summer internships, which are a mix of part-time and full-time positions, will be paid.
Lehigh Valley Congresswoman Susan Wild began paying her interns this spring. Her office says the amount interns receive will vary each session based on the number of interns they have.
“These internships are a pipeline to jobs on Capitol Hill and in government and political arenas and we need as many smart, enthusiastic young people in that pipeline as we can get,” Wild said in a written statement. “This program is a great start to helping increase those opportunities for students with a diversity of backgrounds.”
Rep. Matt Cartwright’s office said they, too, are using the intern money, which the Scranton Democrat’s staff is divvying up based on how many interns they expect to host and how many hours those interns will work.
Cartwright’s chief of staff, Hunter Ridgway, said the exact allocation may shift due to those factors, but the stipend will be in the range of $200 to $300 per month.
A spokesman for Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Bucks County, said the office is still working out how this summer’s eight interns will be paid, also citing scheduling factors.
Those who have advocated for more paid opportunities on Capitol Hill say the rollout of this year’s funding has been slow but is moving in the right direction. The group Pay Our Interns has been working with congressional offices, urging them to set up their intern programs in ways that will diversify applicant pools.
Part of that is making sure offices are advertising that the opportunities are now paid, something that some potential interns might not realize. Offering more paid opportunities might not address the larger issue if it means each intern receives too little to live on in Washington.
“What we’re trying to ensure is that they’re not just paid opportunities, but that they’re equitable opportunities,” said Guillermo Creamer, the group’s co-founder.
Creamer’s organization will be following up on its original report this summer with an update on how the intern dollars are being used.