However, the fact that these internships are usually unpaid means that they are often only feasible for the nation’s best-off students. In 2013, only 35 Senators paid their interns. And according to a survey of congressional internship coordinators, lack of compensation is the leading reason that prospective candidates turn down an internship offer. For many, working a full-time job with no pay in one of America’s most expensive cities is nearly impossible. Personally, I took out thousands of dollars in additional private student loans in order to afford the opportunity, which I used for college credit. The experience was valuable – and helped me land a paid position on a campaign when I returned to school – but it certainly came with its fair share of financial stress.
The most expensive element of a congressional internship is the cost of housing. While interning, I lived in a dorm at George Washington University (GWU). For this summer’s interns, the cheapest option for an eight-week stay at GWU – living in a triple or quad – is over $2,400. That figure accounts for the base cost of $245 per week, a $150 administrative fee, and the city’s 14.5 percent tax on “transient accommodations.” That amount is cheaper than staying inGeorgetown or American University dorms and is on par with smaller local colleges like Catholic University or Gallaudet. There are somewhat cheaper options for interns looking to live in an apartment, but finding rentals for less than a thousand dollars per month is uncommon. Finding something for less than $800 is nearly impossible.
Housing costs are not the only financial burden on interns. Groceries and public transit are also relatively expensive in Washington. If you’re not from major cities like New York, Boston, or San Francisco, you’ll likely feel some sticker shock. For example, I came to the District from Columbus, Ohio, where housing is 68 percent cheaper, groceries are 16 percent cheaper, and public transit is 5 percent cheaper, according to CNN Money’s Cost of Living Calculator. Living, eating, and even taking the bus in the District is more costly than in your typical college town.
Simply put, interning on Capitol Hill isn’t a realistic option for lower-income students that can’t afford unpaid gigs or aren’t willing to take on the financial burden of additional loans.
The solution is to pay interns minimum wage for the hours they work, or at least offer a minimum stipend that covers the average cost of housing. But paid internships area tough sell in Congress, which cut its budget by roughly 20 percent from 2011-2013. The median salary for congressional staffers has decreased over the past four years – by more than 20 percent for some positions. Constrained budgets and diminished salaries mean that offices are unlikely to carve out additional funding to pay their interns.
Unless that changes, congressional internships and other unpaid opportunities will remain infeasible to many students. The cost of living in Washington and the cost of higher education all but prohibit many college students from participating. However, interning in the hallowed halls of Congress should not be an opportunity beyond the reach of America's low-income students.
Phillip Burgoyne-Allen is a legislative assistant at an education law firm. Reach him via email or Twitter.