As of September 7th, Senators in the 115th Congress have introduced 3,480 bills. Only two percent of bills introduced in the Senate have been enacted. Over 87 percent of bills haven’t even made their way past introduction.
One of the bills working its way through the Congress is the the 2019 Legislative Branch Appropriations bill which includes a provision to fund the paying of interns in Congress. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) has long championed the $5 million initiative.
Sen. Van Hollen shared three takeaways with Quorum on how this issue made it from an idea to a reality in the Senate:
First, the issue of paying interns was raised to Van Hollen by a series of constituents and advocacy groups. Interns who worked in the senator’s office reinforced what he was hearing, sharing with their boss the challenges of unpaid internships. Van Hollen attended an event hosted by the advocacy group Pay Our Interns, where Van Hollen was compelled to begin paying his office’s interns before there was Senate-wide funding.
Van Hollen emphasized the importance of reaching out to your legislators even when your issue doesn’t seem like it would be significant enough to break through the noise of bigger debates going on in Congress.
“It’s important to approach your legislators and let them know why a particular issue is important to you as a constituent, and there are ways to break through,” Van Hollen shared with Quorum. “Obviously paying our interns wasn’t some big national hot issue, and sometimes those issues that are not the big controversial issues are the areas where it is really possible to get things done, as we are doing with paying our interns.”
When Van Hollen first broached the subject of paying Senate interns to his colleagues in the Appropriations Subcommittee, he didn’t initially get the support he needed. While Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) also supported securing funding for interns, his colleagues on the subcommittee weren’t yet convinced of the impact the funding would have, so instead of going directly to writing intern funding into the appropriations bill, they introduced legislation for a study.
“It was really just the first step to try and get people’s interests,” Van Hollen said. “People then quickly concluded that paying our interns was the right thing to do.”
Van Hollen worked with a group of bipartisan senators—Brian Schatz (D-HI), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Chris Murphy (D-CT), and Susan Collins (R-ME)—to get the provision in the final appropriations bill. This group came together because each had a specific factor either in their personal background or in the state they represent that made them especially inclined to support paying Senate interns. For Schatz and Murkowski, interns in their offices face some of the steepest financial barriers to interning on Capitol Hill simply because of the expense of traveling from Hawaii or Alaska to Washington. For Collins, it was her previous experience as an unpaid Capitol Hill intern herself that spurred an interest in pursuing funding for interns.
“The key is to try and identify a set of common interests and in this case, we were able to do that,” Van Hollen said. “Every issue is different, I’m working with Senator Rubio on legislation called the DETER Act to aid in trying to prevent foreign interference in our elections...You just have to find your legislative partners based on common interests.”
The success the Senate had in securing funding for congressional offices to pay interns provides an example of the way that advocacy organizations can approach the issues they care about.
Along with starting with smaller wins, like a study, and finding the right partners, this issue came to fruition because of vocal constituents and advocacy groups. Legislators are willing and excited to work on issues that may not be in the news every day, but it’s critical for constituents to raise their concerns or interests in a particular issue.
“The key is to make sure that everybody takes their responsibilities as citizens seriously and tries to reach out to the members of the House and Senate, just as we have a responsibility to try to reach out and be in communication with our constituents,” Van Hollen said.