Are Hill interns ‘servants’?

David Archer Contributor

When Rep. Mike Pence (IN-6) edged out Mike Huckabee by 11 votes in the Values Voter Summit straw poll last week, chatter about a potential Palin-Pence presidential bid inevitably jumped a notch or two. I was reminded of a job announcement forwarded to me which originated from Pence’s office a couple of weeks ago.

Now that Congress has returned from recess, it’s useful to remember the plight of Hill staffers who do the bidding of their elected bosses. Pence’s office sent out an advertisement for unpaid fall interns that said Pence is looking for candidates who are “self-motivated team players . . . ready to perform duties with a servant’s attitude.”

That last bit — the laconic invitation to servitude — jumped off the screen, not least for its provocative ambiguity. From whom does Pence demand servitude? If he means servitude for the vehicle of his own career, then the announcement merely confirms what many already suspect: that even the most level-headed elected officials harbor megalomaniacal tendencies. However, the official information on his website phrases things a little differently, asking for a “service-oriented attitude,” which seems to imply nothing more than an entirely laudable reverence for the notion of public service.

All of the above may be nit-picking, but semantics matter. In politics, for better or worse, message is usually what matters most.

Moreover, a percipient friend highlighted a third interpretation. Given that Pence is a well-known practising Christian, might the stipulation for a “servant’s attitude” from prospective interns be a none-so-subtle pitch for applications from coreligionists? Servants of our Lord and Saviour — Jesus Christ, that is — may pray for a competitive internship in a terrible economy, and apply to join an office in which a common faith is shared.

If this last interpretation is correct, there is no issue at stake regarding separation of church and state, at least legally. Congressional offices operate under different employment laws than other federal offices, where unionized workers are almost impossible to fire. Congressmen can employ whoever they like with the taxpayer money they are allocated. Fully-salaried staffers, let alone interns, have few rights; they labor in congressional offices on an “at will” basis at the mercy of their bosses’ whims and vicissitudes. Stockholm Syndrome is rife among young, ideologically-motivated employees who often consider themselves “fighting the good fight” and therefore put up with histrionic, hyper-ambitious bosses.

There is no evidence that Pence is a bad boss; he may very well be a fine and upstanding employer. But enough stories about other congressmen are in the public domain for everyone to be wary of the political type.

Nevertheless, perhaps we shouldn’t be too sympathetic to Hill staffers. They do have jobs, unlike a frustratingly high fraction of the population, and the average salary and benefits gap between public and private sector workers seems to be widening in favor of those on the state payroll. In fact, while junior staffers may be underpaid, experienced staffers often appear to be overpaid. Around 2,000 Hill staffers earn six-figure salaries. The argument that these staffers hold advanced degrees and therefore are entitled to earn big money is flawed. Many of those with law degrees, for example, earned their diplomas at lower-ranked schools and might struggle to earn the same money in private practice. Moreover, making the argument that some group is underpaid by comparing them to lawyers — one of the most overpaid professions in the nation — is a crazy premise to start with.

Many Americans would be surprised to read that the average Hill staffer is in his or her mid-twenties, and that the vast majority have little to no work experience outside of politics. For more experienced staffers, there is a well-documented and widely-criticized revolving door between the worlds of Congress and lobbying.

There is also a seamy side to life on Capitol Hill, encompassing everything from Massa-style sexual predation to the extramarital affairs which are frequently exposed to the public. Those peccadilloes, infidelities and abuses which make it to the media may, in reality, be the tip of the iceberg; and perhaps this is a good thing, particularly if people still read newspapers over breakfast. What is irrefutable is that evidence from the Hill reinforces the truth that young, naïve, or merely stupid people find proximity to political power to be an aphrodisiac.

At this point, I should re-emphasize that I have no reason to suspect that Mike Pence is anything other than entirely upstanding in his office conduct. But I should also declare an interest. It is my belief that, in order to win in 2012, the GOP needs to find a nominee who emphasises fiscal and monetary matters ahead of social conservatism, particularly in the current pressing recessionary circumstances. The Value Voters Summit represents an important constituency in the party, but their endorsement does not necessarily signify that Pence would be popular with the wider electorate.

To end on a bright note: Pence’s response to the straw poll was to announce that he is only concentrating on the November midterms. More importantly, he professes to be on the low-tax, small-government end of the political spectrum. So at least he’s not trying to make servants of all of us — just his interns.

David Archer is a business risk analyst.