If Congress is go­ing to start hand­ing out stipends for hous­ing, then be­gin with the un­paid in­terns.

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - The writer is the founder of Pay Our In­terns and pre­vi­ously in­terned for free in Congress, the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment and the White House.

For­mer con­gress­man Ja­son Chaf­fetz (R-Utah) made head­lines when he said mem­bers of Congress should re­ceive a monthly $2,500 hous­ing stipend. Days be­fore re­tir­ing from the House, he ar­gued that mem­bers of Congress often have to pay for hous­ing in their home town and in the District. Chaf­fetz has a point; the District is the second-most-un­af­ford­able city when it comes to hous­ing. His $174,000 an­nual salary, how­ever, is more than enough for him to live com­fort­ably in the District.

Now, imag­ine hav­ing to live in the same city as the con­gress­man, but in­stead of his com­fort­able six-fig­ure salary, you’re mak­ing $0. Who works and makes no money? In­terns. Ev­ery sum­mer, thou­sands of stu­dents from across the coun­try come to Wash­ing­ton to in­tern in Congress. With hous­ing, food and trans­porta­tion hit­ting $6,000, the cost of a sum­mer con­gres­sional in­tern­ship is pro­hib­i­tive for many of our na­tion’s stu­dents.

But be­cause in­tern­ing on Capi­tol Hill is con­sid­ered a rite of pas­sage for any­one who wants to pur­sue a ca­reer in pol­i­tics, mem­bers of Congress know they can get away with not pay­ing their in­terns, hid­ing be­hind the cliched ex­cuse that in­terns will gain “in­valu­able work ex­pe­ri­ence.” Often over­looked: Only some stu­dents can af­ford to take un­paid in­tern­ships, es­pe­cially in cities where they don’t al­ready live.

The ex­pe­ri­ence in­terns re­ceive while work­ing for free has cre­ated an elit­ist, harm­ful sys­tem at the heart of our repub­lic.

Un­paid in­tern­ships make the point of en­try into pol­i­tics out of reach for col­lege stu­dents who can­not af­ford to work for free. Stu­dents are left with the choice of for­go­ing valu­able ex­pe­ri­ence, tak­ing out loans or work­ing side jobs.

As a 17-year-old in­tern­ing for my con­gress­man, I de­voted 25 hours per week to my in­tern­ship, 20 hours to my part-time job and 16 to earn­ing col­lege cred­its.

There were days at my in­tern­ship where it felt as if my eye­lids had 50-pound weights at­tached to them.

The sad re­al­ity is that stu­dents from low-in­come fam­i­lies can’t par­tic­i­pate in the con­gres­sional in­tern­ship ex­pe­ri­ence. That makes the vast ma­jor­ity of Hill in­terns stu­dents from wealthy fam­i­lies who can af­ford to put their chil­dren up in the District dur­ing the sum­mer.

Be­cause in­tern­ing on the Hill is an un­spo­ken pre­req­ui­site to work­ing on the Hill af­ter grad­u­a­tion, this means that the leg­isla­tive-staffer jobs al­most ex­clu­sively go to stu­dents from wealthy back­grounds. This af­fects pol­icy and your com­mu­nity. Staffers wield power in many ways most Amer­i­cans don’t know about. They craft pol­icy, ad­vise mem­bers on what to vote for and even help craft the fed­eral bud­get. They are the eyes, ears and sound­ing boards for ev­ery mem­ber of Congress.

Can we re­ally be a rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­racy when the elite few are writ­ing laws? Can we close the racial wealth gap when most in­tern­ships go to stu­dents with the same eco­nomic back­ground? Will we have a truly di­verse Congress if, year af­ter year, in­terns look the same?

Th­ese are the ques­tions our mem­bers of Congress must ask.

The in­equal­ity in­her­ent in con­gres­sional in­tern­ships is why I de­cided to found Pay Our In­terns, a bi­par­ti­san non­profit that ad­vo­cates for paid in­tern­ships in the pub­lic, pri­vate and non­profit sec­tors.

Last week, we re­leased our re­port on who pays — Chaf­fetz did — and who doesn’t, be­cause Amer­i­cans should know which mem­bers are re­ly­ing on un­paid la­bor.

For­tu­nately, there is a so­lu­tion. From 1974 to 1993, the Lyn­don B. John­son con­gres­sional in­tern pro­gram funded thou­sands of in­tern­ships that al­lowed stu­dents from all walks of life to par­tic­i­pate in our leg­isla­tive process first­hand. That pro­gram gave stu­dents the abil­ity to in­tern with­out wor­ry­ing about pay­ing their bills.

If mem­bers of Congress care about our young peo­ple and about hav­ing a di­verse and healthy democ­racy, then they will do the right thing and start pay­ing their in­terns.

We should ex­pect more from our mem­bers of Congress, whether it’s through a pro­gram such as the LBJ in­tern­ships or by set­ting aside money in the of­fice bud­get for a stipend (as many law­mak­ers do).

They need to show their con­stituents that they care about hav­ing the same di­ver­sity that ex­ists in their dis­tricts and states in their of­fices on Capi­tol Hill.

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