by Jessica Kirchner
My summer internship at the House of Representatives was primarily spent answering constituent emails, visiting museums, and meeting other college kids in ill-fitting business wear. While the privilege of bringing coffee into the Capitol made it well worth it, I spent the best summer days working nine to five in a building that was a much better view from the outside-in than vice-versa. I learned to wear comfortable shoes, because we’d often be sent scurrying through the tunnels below Capitol Hill. In a time of wage discrimination and insecurity, it was almost a comfort to know that my fellow interns and I were all making the same amount: nothing. While the incoming administration is starkly different from its predecessor, the two are both dependent on volunteer political interns.
On June 25th, 1938, Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) into action and the legislation became pivotal in the multi-decade fight for fair worker’s compensation. Those protections, however, would not extend to interns, even the interns that the government itself employs. According to ABC News, on any given summer day, there can be as many as 10,000 interns on the Hill. The American bureaucracy relies on free labor. It depends on ambitious students to do its menial tasks: running memos, sorting emails, and all the grunt work that comes with politics. And while most of these students, like me, do this eagerly and enthusiastically, the government would not function without a steady stream of volunteers.
The unpaid nature of the internships forces many ambitious students to look elsewhere for summer work.
The election of President Donald Trump poses an interesting problem. The White House has always required troves of young people to run errands within the wings, and yet it may have issues reaching the numbers it demands. Despite winning the Electoral College, Donald Trump failed to win the millennial vote, garnering only 37% of the electorate. Compared to Obama’s 60% in 2012, the American population between 18 and 29 has a distinctly different opinion on the incoming president. If the sample size is reduced to its youngest students (18-24), the gap widens even further.
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Trump’s transition was chaotic: within his first 8 days, he has hit a disapproval rating of 51%. It took George W. Bush more than 1,000 days to hit the same level. While this is an issue in itself, the resentment he faces among millennial voters will manifest in a different way.
Trump’s influence spreads across all departments through his appointments and policies, and it’s likely that the entire political system will feel the weight of his infamy.
But what does this mean for the interns? According to The Pew Research Center, more than 1 in 5 millennials say that helping others in need is one of the most important things in their lives. Millennials are active, educated, and compassionate, and it’s hard to imagine them volunteering for the Trump administration. There’s been so much chaos in the past two weeks, between the rollout for the immigration ban and the Obamacare repeal, that students who are looking for summer work might search for a more stable environment. The majority of intern-age students voted against Donald Trump, and it’s unlikely that many will view his past few weeks as an incentive to get involved.
Most college students apply for internships in the winter months, and have decided by mid-March, which means that some students are planning their summers as I write. The current political environment on the Hill will likely deter many potential applicants. The coming weeks are critical for the administration. It’s the first start of a new presidency, and Trump will have to watch his footing to avoid stepping on the toes of his free labor.
Jessica Kirchner is a junior at UConn studying political science and economics with the intent of going into foreign aid. She’s in her third year of Arabic and has done research in both domestic and foreign policy. She spent her summer in the Capitol with Congresswoman Katherine Clark, and is definitely a dog person.
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no institutional positions on matters of policy or opinion.