WASHINGTON — Every member of Congress recently gained access to a pot of money to pay interns working in the nation's Capitol.
For the 38-member Texas delegation – the second-largest in Congress behind California – the move could mean dozens of previously unpaid internships that often go to Texans become paid, significantly broadening who is able to take advantage of them.
Last year, lawmakers included more than $13 million in an appropriations bill specifically for intern compensation. In the Senate, $5 million in funding was doled out to states by size — with only Texas and California allotted the most at $73,000 for each state. In the House, $8.8 million in funding was used to give each member $20,000 for the fiscal year, which started in October. According to guidelines adopted by the House Administration Committee last month, interns who receive money from this fund must work in Washington.
Most internships in Congress have been traditionally unpaid. Competition for the slots are often competitive, and members of Congress tend to favor applicants from their home states or districts. While some offices offer course credit for college, students are still responsible for finding lodging and paying for food, in addition to working the required hours of their internships.
"It is clear that the financial burden of living in Washington, D.C., limits who can participate in an unpaid internship," said Jenifer Sarver, a former director of the University of Texas System's Archer Center, which sends students to D.C. for a program of internships and classes. "Some students without financial means are limited to only accepting internships that can pay, which in turn limits their experience and exposure to the mechanisms of power in our government."
Before funding was made available, House members could only pay their interns out of their already allocated staff budgets, which some members did, though those opportunities were not always well-publicized. A Tribune analysis of House office expenditures of Texans in Congress found at least 14 Texans in the U.S. House paying at least some of their interns. Yet a review of their official websites found none advertising paid internships.
U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, told The Tribune that he previously paid some of his interns a stipend in order to allow more people to take part in the program.
“We pay two of our interns per cohort a monthly stipend to make an internship on Capitol Hill more accessible for people of all socioeconomic backgrounds," he said. "This comes out of our budget that is allocated on a fiscal year basis, the same way we provide staff salaries." Additionally, Castro said, some other interns participate in fellowship programs that pay them for their work in congressional offices.
Until recently, only the Senate had access to the funds allocated by Congress for paying interns. Neither of Texas' two U.S. senators, Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, responded for requests to comment about whether they plan to use that fund.
Shelby Hobohm, a double major at the University of Texas at Austin studying political science and mechanical engineering, is interning in Washington this spring with Pay Our Interns, an advocacy group founded in 2016 that helped put a spotlight on the struggles of unpaid interns in Congress. Her Archer Center Fellowship allows her to work 40 hours a week while also taking classes.
“If I wanted to decide to take an internship in D.C. without this scholarship, I don’t think I would have been able to,” she said. “Making sure people have these opportunities is very important to me."
Hobohm, who grew up in North Texas, says she wants to see more of the Texans she knows on Capitol Hill, which means more Texans who wouldn't be able to temporarily move to Washington without paid internship opportunities.
Offices for several Texans in Congress confirmed to the Tribune they plan to use the funding to compensate at least some of their interns in Washington. Several other members did not respond to requests for comment.
“The congressman feels that it’s important to provide opportunities to aspiring congressional interns of all backgrounds; therefore, our office plans to pay our interns," said Anna Pacilio, communications director for U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth.
Katherine Schneider, Castro's communications director, said he plans to use the new funding as well. "The new funding will allow the office to provide a paid internship in Washington, D.C., to more students who are not already receiving funding from another source," she said.
On the other end of the political spectrum, U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Houston, told Rice University students in February that he would consider giving his interns a housing stipend but would not be willing to pay them directly for their work, according to the student newspaper.When asked about the comment by the Tribune, Crenshaw's office appeared to be considering multiple options.
“Rep. Crenshaw is excited to use this funding to the fullest extent," said Kerry Rom, Crenshaw's communications director. "Our office is currently working through what that will look like.”
Guillermo Creamer Jr., co-founder of Pay Our Interns, said that although the group is excited to see the House following up on the promised pay plan, the still foresees some logistical issues, such as how offices that already paid some interns will use the new money and whether offices will start promoting their paid internships or continue to decide which interns to pay behind the scenes.
"Internships are an entry point in the workforce pipeline," Creamer said. "If these entry points aren’t accessible to all, then we are preventing diversity to come into its full fruition."
Disclosure: Jenifer Sarver, the University of Texas System, the University of Texas at Austin and Rice University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.