After my first year of college, I was fortunate enough to score an internship on Capitol Hill, working in the office of a respected veteran senator. For a month, I did everything and anything that was asked of me, as I tried to soak up as much of the experience as possible. For me, each committee hearing, legislative memo, and clip packet were like gifts on Christmas morning.
As part of my internship, I also got the privilege of commuting by train – more than an hour each way – from my parents’ home in West Virginia. It was the only way to make my first internship work financially. Additionally, I spent the rest of the summer, as well as every weekend during my internship month, working at a local restaurant. I was gaining valuable work experience walking the halls of Congress. And I was gaining the dollars necessary to live during college by ringing up buffet dinners for Mountain State families and breaking down the soft-serve ice cream machine nightly.
The following summer, I was fortunate enough to earn an internship in the press office of U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd. That was the summer I retired from my career at Ponderosa Steak House. Senator Byrd was a former Senate Majority Leader and was chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. A man who became one of the most powerful leaders in DC, Senator Byrd also believed in an honest day’s pay for a hard day’s work. I interned for Byrd for two summers, getting paid a salary both years.
I continued to take the train in from West Virginia both of those summers, to save money and avoid the cost of DC summer rent, but I was able to spend those summers focused on my future. The train rides became opportunities to read about government and policy. The weekends became a chance to explore possible career paths beyond law school. Those paid internships with Senator Byrd transformed me into the communications and policy professional I would become.
All because of a paycheck attached to an invaluable internship.
Last month, the U.S. Senate appropriated $5 million to provide the resources to pay Senate interns, giving each Senate office about $50,000 a year to compensate the lifeblood of Capitol Hill. The funds will hardly ensure that interns earn anything to close to what those interning on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley may earn, what with some Hill offices employing more than a dozen interns in the summer months alone to share that pot. But it is a start.
It is a start in showing appreciation for those that perform the tasks of Capitol Hill interns, perhaps allowing interns the chance to take one fewer shift as a waiter or bartender in DC and being able to use the time to explore the city they are calling home for the summer. It is a step at wiping away the general DC belief that interns are simply free labor, motivated by their need to find paying jobs after college.
More importantly, though, the move to compensate U.S. Senate interns begins to bring some equity to a system that is far from equitable. For decades, unpaid DC internships largely ensured an intern pool of the wealthy and the well connected. In an institution that is already far whiter than the populace, it ensured that its interns were equally as white. In short, it created a labor pool that looked vastly different from the people it was governing.
If the $50 million paid internship pool allows one more low-income student to pursue a Capitol Hill internship, then it is a worthy investment. If it inspired a new generation to see the value of government service, even if it pays far less than the private sector (both at internships and full-time jobs), then it is a worthy investment. If it means more 19- and 20-year olds don’t have to work two or three jobs during the summer in order to pursue its passions, then it is a worthy investment. And if it inspires other industries – including the media and entertainment sectors – to open their checkbooks and eliminate their own “free summer labor pool,” then it is definitely worth it.
No college student is ever going to get rich working an internship on Capitol Hill. Interns will still spend much of their salaries renting a summer dorm room from a local university or packing into short-term lease apartments. They will continue to live on an all-you-can-eat pizza, salad, and banana pudding buffet (as I did as an intern), supplemented by Capitol Hill reception hors d’oeuvres. And a small monthly check from the U.S. Senate ensures that those who seek such an experience may actually be able to take advantage of it.
(This piece originally appeared on LinkedIn Pulse.)