Thomas Jefferson put it well when he noted that “government is the strongest of which every man feels himself a part.” Representation in government is important at all levels, and this includes our interns. The issue of internship compensation in Washington, D.C., should fall squarely within this principle, to create an equitable avenue to build experience in public service and eventual leadership in our government.
The movement for intern pay in public service scored a victory in September 2018, when Congress finally signed off on a program to allow a maximum of $1,800 a month for Capitol Hill interns. While the move was decisive, it should not obscure the gaping disparities that remain in the world of government and public service internships. Pay Our Interns, a nonprofit dedicated to compensating interns, reported in 2019 that only 9 percent of House offices publicly state they offer paid internships and that 61 percent advertise no compensation whatsoever — despite the House Paid Internship Program’s allocation of nearly $20,000 per office. This money also does not cover those who work in district offices.
However, Congress is just one component of a larger matrix of government entities that provide early access to public leadership. From the Departments of State and Treasury to the Supreme Court and the White House, the federal government primarily offers a slew of unpaid internships. While the debate over intern pay has traditionally been in the name of fairness and cost of living, the conversation has overlooked a dimension to be modeled: the Founders’ constitutional intent in creating a government of the people.
American democracy was born out of disregard for the institutions of aristocracy and royalty. The Founders made explicit in the Constitution to forgo the trappings of aristocracy, as was made clear in Article I: “No Title of Nobility may be granted by the United States.” To achieve this, the Founders also thought it important to establish compensation for our chief executive; Article II specifies the terms and compensation of the President. The Founders believed it necessary to enact such a salary, initially $25,000, to ensure political independence and protection against Congress influencing the office through a paycheck. But it was also about creating a government of the people. Rep. Fisher Ames, a leader in the Federalist party and member of the first U.S. Congress, argued forcefully during ratification that “every man is eligible, by the Constitution, to be chosen to this office, but if a competent support is not allowed, the choice will be confined to opulent characters. This is an aristocratic idea, and contravenes the spirit of the Constitution.” This sentiment ultimately won out, even over opponents like Benjamin Franklin and George Washington himself, who initially refused to accept a salary but was soon forced to by Congress.
Debates over presidential compensation have continued throughout our history. In a 1999 congressional hearing, the most recent instance that presidential compensation has been reconsidered, Rep. Jim Turner of Texas observed that these “principles should guide us in our consideration of the President’s compensation … [allowing] those who are qualified and not independently wealthy to hold office if so elected or appointed.” Rep. Stephen Horn of California pointed to necessary sacrifices to be made when entering public service and the financial opportunity cost involved in working in government instead of private industry. To raise the president’s pay was to establish both a symbolic and practical upper bound to the compensation for government work.
The same reasoning for providing a salary at the highest level of government should be similarly applied to its lowest bound: our interns. In the absence of being “independently wealthy” like Turner describes, qualified young people should not be discouraged from entering public service. Engaging our best talent with the public sector can maximize its diversity, combat socioeconomic stagnancy in leadership, and keep a steady flow of fresh ideas. While the ceiling of the government sends a powerful signal, so too does its floor — how we value our interns. Both the President and the interns fundamentally serve in order to serve the people, a lowest common denominator that binds our government regardless of rank. Fair compensation for our interns is also an idea built around egalitarianism and representation of the people, who themselves delegate to the government its power.
It is no secret the Founders were unjustly selective in whom they gave “access” and “representation.” But history points to the American identity as an arc toward a pursuit of ideals and not a singular point in time, including the moment of our founding. On the great question of how best to form a representative government, the Founders answered well on the topic of the president’s pay, but as we have seen throughout history, this was only the beginning. It is the onus of every generation that follows to answer this question anew, build upon the past, and work against a government led only by “opulent characters.” Compensating our interns is a start.