CEO says offering paid internships on Capitol Hill could help make Congress more effective

CEO Audrey Henson said Tuesday that paying interns on Capitol Hill could help make Congress not only more diverse but also more effective.

“When you’re looking at Congress and the majority of the bills that they pass that have to do with social welfare, with spending, we want to make sure that there are people at the table who have been on those programs, who understand what works and what doesn’t work,” Henson, the CEO and founder of nonprofit College to Congress, told Hill.TV’s Buck Sexton and Krystal Ball on “Rising.”

Henson noted that congressional internships are often a “direct pipeline” for staff positions within the U.S. government.

“In two to three years, you could be working on legislation that goes on to affect millions of Americans,” she said.

Henson, a former congressional intern, was first inspired to create College for Congress after personally struggling to make it in Washington with little to no pay. The bipartisan organization helps students across the country both find and afford internships with the federal government.  

The CEO said she had to work two jobs at night and take out a loan to make ends meet, but she said others shouldn’t have to do the same.

“We want to make sure we’re providing not only access to Congress, so helping them get the internship but paying all of their costs so they can really focus on the internship, focus on what they’re here to do,” she told Hill.TV.

According to a 2017 study by Pay Our Interns, only 3.6 percent of House Democrats paid their interns, compared to 8 percent of House Republicans.

The study also found that, while senators tended offer more paid internships, the number of paid interns was still low. Just 31 percent of Democrats and 51 percent of Republicans offered to pay interns. 

Henson emphasized that this practice hasn’t always been the case.

She said interns were traditionally paid for their work, thanks to governmental programs such as the Lyndon Baines Johnson Congressional Intern Program. But those programs have since been cut.

“Interns were paid until about 25 years ago, there were programs that allowed for paid internships,” she said. “In the 1994 budget cuts, that got cut with it,” she said.

The issue of unpaid internships on Capitol Hill sparked debate last month after Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) called it “unjust” for Congress to pay lawmakers a living wage and yet still rely on “unpaid interns.”

President Trump signed a spending bill in September that allotted new funding for internships. However, Henson noted that the decision on how to use these funds is still up to lawmakers as there’s no law requiring them to pay interns.

“It’s still up to their discretion, how they want to spend the money, if they want to spend the money, so our program is very needed,” she told Hill.TV.

— Tess Bonn

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