Even Interns Are Expected To Dress For Success On The Hill Dr. Philip Lehman, a former intern and congressional staffer, talks about fashion and money on Capitol Hill — and why the lowest-paid staffers often find themselves in a bind.

Even Interns Are Expected To Dress For Success On The Hill

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Did you happen to catch the president's State of the Union address on Tuesday night? And if you did, did you notice the abundance of high-end suits and shirts or, for the ladies, expensive dresses and maybe some pearls? That expensive style is not reserved for the higher-ups. It is a staple of Capitol Hill culture from senators and chiefs-of-staff down to the summer interns. And that's kind of a problem, at least according to a recent opinion piece in The Washington Post by a former Hill staffer. Dr. Philip Lehman is now a cardiovascular fellow at Duke University, but a decade ago, he worked as an intern and as a staff member for the House Ways and Means Committee. So we called Dr. Lehman at WUNC in Durham, N.C. Dr. Lehman, thanks so much for speaking with us.

PHILIP LEHMAN: Thanks so much, Michel.

MARTIN: So, first of all, for people who haven't visited the nation's capital or at least were not paying attention than they did, paint us a picture of what a fashion-conscious observer might notice if they were to walk the halls of Capitol Hill, as you once did.

LEHMAN: So, one of the very first things you're told when you work on Capitol Hill is that there's a level of expectation as to how you dress. You're representing a member, a senator, a congressman. And you're expected to be wearing, if you're a man, a suit and a tie, especially if you're in session - for women, something equivalently appropriate. And I think it requires a little bit of a chunk of change in order to fit the part, so to speak.

The impetus behind the piece was the fact that I was walking around Capitol Hill, visiting offices, meeting with staffers and interns. And it sort of struck me that, man, everybody looks fantastic. And then I really thought - how is this even possible? And so I really came to thinking, and I crunched some numbers about how much I made when I was a Capitol Hill intern and then a staffer. And essentially, I lived on an almost day-to-day basis and had around $23 a day of discretionary income based on my income of $25,000 a year. So when you walk around and you see people wearing, as I say in the piece, Tory Burch flats, for example - at 225 bucks a pop, who could possibly afford that if you only have $23 a day after just paying something simple, like, you know, your rent and utilities?

MARTIN: So what's your conclusion about this? You're saying that - look, low wages, high cost of living, and yet, people are kind of fancy. So what conclusion do you draw from this?

LEHMAN: The conclusion is that at the end of the day, if you're going to dress this nicely and there's this expectation that you need to look a certain part, in order to simply just afford the experience, that means one of three things has to be true. Either you have to pick up a second job, you are taking on massive amounts of credit card debt, or perhaps money isn't an issue for you. And if that's the case, then that really has implications for what the pipeline of who works on Capitol Hill in the future looks like.

It's a problem because there are probably many people for whom working on Capitol Hill would be the ultimate public service career. And I hate to say it, but they actually might be priced out from the de facto entry experience into that lifestyle moving forward. So you're kind of stuck in a rut. How do you get your foot in the door when you can't even afford the experience?

MARTIN: So what's your solution to this?

LEHMAN: The obvious solution, of course, would be to provide a wage that wouldn't effectively prohibit some group of people from having a little bit of a greater chance to work on Capitol Hill. It's not that everybody needs to make a lot of money, but I would hate for anybody to not want to even think about working on Capitol Hill because they know that they just couldn't survive on, let's say, three months or even more of unpaid work.

MARTIN: Philip Lehman is a cardiovascular fellow at Duke University. He's a former staff member for the House Ways and Means Committee. He spoke with us from WUNC in Durham, N.C. Dr. Lehman, thanks so much for speaking with us.

LEHMAN: It's a pleasure. Thank you, Michel.

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