Want to be a congressional intern? Open your checkbook

What can we do about income inequality? In a long piece in Politico, billionaire venture capitalist Tom Hanauer supports nearly doubling the national minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Hanauer is seriously rich. He was the first non-family member to invest in Jeff Bezos’ tiny little online bookstore, and also founded an Internet marketing company which he sold to Microsoft in 2007 for $6.4 billion – in cash. His piece, written as a “memo to my fellow zillionaires,” warns his fellow 0.01 percenters that continuing inequality is not just bad for the economy, but dangerous to them personally.

His arguments (http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/06/the-pitchforks-are-coming-for-us-plutocrats-108014.html?ml=po_r#.U7SHkq1dUyE) are cogent and interesting, especially when he predicts that popular rage will eventually doom the plutocracy.

“If we don’t do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy,” Hanauer writes, “the pitchforks are going to come for us. No society can sustain this kind of rising inequality. In fact, there is no example in human history where wealth accumulated like this and the pitchforks didn’t eventually come out. You show me a highly unequal society, and I will show you a police state. Or an uprising. There are no counterexamples. None. It’s not if, it’s when.”

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado agrees that the minimum wage should be raised. In a fiery speech on the Senate floor last month, Bennet called upon the Senate to act immediately.

“If you work 40 hours a week, you make barely over $15,000 a year,” Bennet noted. “That’s $8,000 a year below the poverty level for a family of four.”

“It’s maybe hard for people here who live on $174,000 (the salary of a U.S. senator) a year to imagine,” he continued angrily, and went on to detail at length how a family with a single breadwinner would find it impossible to pay for food and rent, let alone health care, transportation, clothing or anything else.

Admirable sentiments to be sure, but Bennet doesn’t exactly walk his talk.

Here’s a description of his internship programs, taken from his website.

A competitive internship program has been established for college students, college graduates, and graduate students in Senator Bennet’s Washington and Colorado offices. These structured internships will provide the opportunity to learn about the role of a Senatorial office while enabling those who participate to be of service to their community. Participation in the internship program requires an application process, a letter of intent, resume, completed application with references, and writing samples. Each candidate is required to commit to at least 15 hours per week.

Colorado Offices Internships

Internships are available for college students and graduate students in Senator Bennet’s Colorado offices. Exemplary college students will be chosen to assist with a variety of duties including constituent services, community outreach and special projects. A variety of administrative tasks are required such as greeting visitors, answering phones, and filing. Internships are on a voluntary basis; no stipend is provided.

Washington, D.C. Office Internships

Internships in the Washington, D.C. office are available to college students and graduate students. The internships will consist of a combination of legislative and administrative work. The function of the Washington, D.C. office is to serve the needs of Senator Bennet’s legislative priorities. Interns will have the opportunity to participate in a host of activities such as assisting with legislative research, writing responses to constituent inquiries, attending committee hearings and preparing other briefs on Senate activities. Various administrative tasks such as greeting guests and appointments, answering phones, and filing are also part of the internship. Internships are on a voluntary basis; no stipend is provided.

Bennet’s various offices are happy to benefit from the free labor.

“Here in Colorado Springs we’ve had as many as seven interns,” said Annie Oatman-Gardner, Bennet’s regional director. “In Denver they may have 10, and the other offices around the state have one or two. Denver and Colorado Springs have big college communities, so we benefit from that.”

Including Washington, it appears that there are around 20 interns on the job at any given time, providing 300 hours a week of volunteer time to the senator. Using Hanauer’s minimum wage of $15, that’s $4,500 a week, or $225,000 annually (assuming that no interns work during the Thanksgiving/Christmas/New Years breaks).

Why pay them? There will be scores of applicants for the “jobs,” young folks hoping to burnish their resumes who have support networks that can allow them to work for free.

But that’s not the case for many. What about a potential volunteer who has to work while attending school? What about kids whose parents are minimum wage workers, who can’t afford to support her, fly her to Washington, or even buy her appropriate work clothes? This is a program for the sons and daughters of the upper middle class, not for working families.

Bennet is far from the only member of Congress who offers unpaid internships. But given that he’s a singularly progressive and reasonable man, maybe he could lead the way in reforming the system.

When Bennet’s up for re-election in 2016, he’ll probably raise well over $10 million to fund his campaign. His colleagues in both parties will raise like amounts; $225,000 amounts to 2.25 percent of $10 million, so why not hit up his campaign donors? It would make internships far more accessible to poor kids and, if widely adopted by our elected leaders in Washington, give Americans a reason not to despise Congress.

Congressional approval levels, now hovering around 7 percent, might skyrocket. We could see 8, 9 even 10 percent … imagine!

It’s up to you, guys and gals.

One Response to Want to be a congressional intern? Open your checkbook

  1. Big business can afford to absorb minimum wage hikes while small business gets crushed by them. This issue is way too nuanced to be throwing around minimum wage hikes like they are the silver bullet to our problems. We need thoughtful and responsible statesmen in DC that can hold more than one thought in their head at the same time – people who can thoughtfully work through complicated problems and put together comprehensive and multi-faceted solutions. The pandering vampire politicos we keep electing to office create a lot more problems than they solve, yet we lemmings keep voting for them.

    Henry Wolford
    July 4, 2014 at 4:25 pm