Four practical ways of making Congress more accessible for working-class people
Updated: Mar 1, 2019
By Finn Oldfield
“We the people” reads the famous preamble of the US Constitution that organized the foundation of Government for the people of America, but what conception of “people” did the Founding Fathers envision when they drew up this document? One may think from looking at previous members of Congress that the term “people” only extends to upper-class, white, male landowners. But times are changing.
The newest elects to the House of Representatives are the most diverse we have ever seen; from the first Native American women Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland, to the first Muslim women Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. Diverse progressives are riding the blue wave to seats in Government like never before. But one representative-elect has caught the attention of many headlines ever since she beat the incumbent Joe Crowley of the Democratic primary in June. Young democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spoke out recently that as a working-class person she couldn't afford the rent of an apartment in D.C. until her Congressional salary started in January of next year. She was mocked for this admission, and was met with further scrutiny when she was referred to as a 'girl' and criticized for the clothes on her back.
“The comment was about the clothes, but at the same time it wasn’t about the clothes. It is never, really, about the clothes. It is about belonging. It is about power. It is about who is assumed to look like a congressperson, and who is not.”
Even before becoming a House representative she has started a debate about Congress being unfit for the aspirations of working-class people seeking public office. For many of these people, the reality of running for Congress is simply unthinkable, but if we are to embrace the picture of a diverse America, they must be included in the narrative. The anger of working-class people at the state of the world is often spoken about as a problem for American politics, but no-one offers them a solution. Nobody tells them to change the systems of the Government they have been locked out of for so long.
I believe these four steps would help to change this:
1. Begin the Congressional salary as soon as one is elected.
Many working-class people seeking public office won’t have connections in the D.C. area as many rich politicians do. For many, Congress will be their first time in a Government job, so moving the first payment date closer to election day will allow them to secure apartments, organize events and provide for transport from their home district to Capitol Hill; imagine having to travel from California to D.C. every few days with no salary.
2. Offer stipends for those running who are in the lowest tax thresholds.
Working-class people like Ocasio-Cortez will likely have to give up their day jobs to run for Congress, so without financial support from family and friends, many will be too scared to run for fear of financial insecurity. Congress should support an initiative to set up a loan or grant system to readdress the gaping imbalance in the representation of working-class people sitting in Congress. Many taxpayers may be reluctant to fund such a resource pool for working-class people, so foundations and organizations should step in. There are organizations that help women run for Congress, so imagine the difference organizations could make if the focus was shifted to include economically disadvantaged women.
3. Reform campaign finance laws.
Congress should reform campaign finance laws so spending is capped. House Democrats are introducing a bill that would mandate more disclosure of outside money and establish a public financing match for small contributions. However, with Republicans still controlling the Senate, this legislation will likely not pass. Getting dirty money out of politics is only the first step though. Uncontrolled spending on campaigns should be capped at a certain amount so elections cannot be bought out from under the feet of the poorer candidates running. 40 percent of Congress are millionaires when only around 4 percent of Americans belong to this economic group; how is this a fair representation of the American people? Political parties evaluate chances of a candidate winning a race on fundraising and cash contributions from wealthy donors. When this is not an option for working-class candidates, establishment figures will continue beating them back.
4. Pay your interns.
As a poor working-class person myself, looking at internships on Capitol Hill can feel demoralising. Most Congresspeople only offer unpaid internships, so my situation feels as if I have to choose between unpaid but valuable experience, or paid but less valuable experience elsewhere. Now, I am not complaining that I am in such a privileged position to be able to live in D.C., but as a person who is driven to break economic glass ceilings by defying expectations of where a working-class person can get to in life, the choice is frustrating. Many of my fellow undergraduates don’t even use loan systems like I do, instead they live off the bank of Mom and Dad. While there’s nothing wrong with parents supporting their children, please understand my frustration is at a system that effectively wants me to choose between paying my rent and progressing in my career. This struggle doesn’t just affect white working-class people like me though. Imagine the diverse ideas of POC, LGBT, disabled working-class people that could be shared if they were given avenues into seats of power in this great country.
I am confident however that with every working-class person elected to Congress, our situation will change a little more for the better. Every corporate interest that is called out and held to account is a step on the way to reforming a system designed to shut out the people it claims to serve. As the late great educator and politician Shirley Chisholm said “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair."
*Since the original writing of this article, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has announced she will pay her interns 'at least' 15 dollars per hour in an unprecedented move. She also illuminated to the fact that both chambers recently set money aside to pay interns beginning in 2019.