It’s no secret that Capitol Hill is rife with hyper-partisanship—an issue that has only ballooned in the last couple of years. At the frontlines of this toxic political culture, congressional staffers carry the weight of federal lawmaking on their back while constantly preparing for high-stakes exhaustion.
I’ve staffed for two different members of Congress — Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX) and Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX). I had my first big professional break at the age of 14, when I got to work in Washington for Congressman Smith. At the time, I knew a “Hillternship” was one of D.C.’s holy grails, and that it would shine like gold on a resumé. Little did I know that it would come with a lot of unspoken rules and unwritten fine print. For instance, I was offered no pay and no housing or transportation assistance. I was lucky to have my parents help me find affordable options.
Few Hillterns receive such assistance. Jordan Buie, a former staffer in Congressman Smith’s office, told me that she was “fortunate enough to have housing costs taken care of” but that her case was an ultra-rarity. “D.C. is a very expensive city to be working in for free,” Buie said. “My situation was an abnormality, not the norm, compared to the vast majority of interns on the Hill.”
Another former staffer for Smith, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, talked about the harsh reality of interns’ responsibilities: “A lot of menial work on the Hill is delegated to interns who are often unpaid,” they said in a text. “We are expected to do a 9-5 job with no salary and no way to cover expenses for housing or living.”
For too long, the status quo has typically favored wealthier students who have the luxury to afford the costs of being a congressional intern. A Georgetown University study in 2018 found more than 80% of students work a job while enrolled in college. However, the same study noted that the low-income students are more likely to take paid positions in retail rather than an unpaid internship in Washington — making them less competitive for entry-level jobs in government.
Pay Our Interns, an organization aimed at providing access to paid internships for students, found that only 10% of Hillterns were paid as of 2019. Most of these aspiring professionals — more often than not, college students — receive no compensation for their relentless work ethic.
“In a time where Congress can’t agree on anything, this is an issue that has cross-party appeal,” co-founder of Pay Our Interns and previously unpaid Hill intern Carlos Vera told me. “If you’ve worked your butt off getting a Bachelors or Masters degree, you shouldn’t have to rely on government-subsidized housing or food stamps.”
What’s worse, this lack of deserved pay isn’t limited to interns. Full-time congressional staffers face the full brunt of what it means to work in the legislative branch. Entry-level positions on Capitol Hill normally start in the $20,000s, which is ridiculously low compared to their bosses’ $174,000 salaries. These positions are usually filled by eager policy players who work extremely demanding jobs in one of the nation’s most expensive cities. A study by Purdue University found that D.C. residents need to make at least $182,000 just to be “happy” — another jarring truth about living in Washington.
Staffers have anonymously spoken out about brutal living conditions and how they survive in such a taxing environment. One staffer said they spent $2,000 of their annual $32,000 salary just to buy professional wear for the Hill. Another 30-year-old staff assistant making $30,500 had little-to-no disposable income, even after making close to $300 a month driving for Postmates to cover leftover expenses. Several other staffer’s financial situations worsened to the point that they qualified for income-assisted housing and government-funded food stamps.
In addition, there’s no formal human resources department on the Hill to handle mediations, salary issues or toxic climates. Congressional aides are only ever offered vague resources to resolve any issues they have within the workplace.
Long hours, unequal pay, and constant burnout have become the norm for Hill staffers who carry the burdensome weight of the legislative branch. From conducting endless research to drafting key pieces of legislation and attending committee meetings, aides dedicate the majority of their time on the Hill to ensuring their office runs smoothly without any unexpected interruptions.
To say that congressional reform in support for aides is long-overdue has become a gross understatement. This is not to say we need to give more money to politicians so they can pay their staff more. But perhaps politicians should have to share some of their large taxpayer-funded salaries with those who make their offices run.
Career politicians who work solely for personal gain are a problem, but it’s already clear that staffers working in government aren’t doing it for the money. Improving the Hill’s culture and workplace climate for the well-being of idealists is the least we can do. It’s time for lawmakers in Congress to take action and improve the livelihoods of the employees that make their jobs possible.