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Fair wages for all? Not always in Congress

Here's an interesting twist in the movement to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour: One of the leaders of the cause, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, doesn't pay his interns.

The fall issue of the magazine "Thinking Minnesota" committed a page to tell how Ellison has been very vocal in the $15-per-hour movement. He was one of the co-sponsors of the "Raise the Wage Act," which sought to raise the federal minimum wage to that rate over the next seven years.

"Thinking Minnesota" also reminds its readers that Ellison was even moved to sing about the movement; he posted a video of himself singing and playing guitar to a rendition of the song "Money (That's what I want)" on Youtube. He also wrote an op-ed in the Minneapolis Star Tribune and said that "at the end of the day, raising wages is about human dignity. ... All workers, whether they receive tips or not, deserve one fair wage of $15 an hour."

Well, evidently not all workers, since Ellison's interns work for free.

Now, Ellison's decision to not pay his interns may seem contrary to his literal song-and-dance about a $15 minimum wage for all workers. We have opined against a $15 minimum wage for various reasons and, frankly, it's just fun to poke fun at Ellison's inconsistency.

Ellison isn't unique in Congress, where a majority of members do not pay their interns. Nor is he technically doing anything wrong. It's perfectly legal because Congress is exempted from the Fair Labor Standards Act.

A report released earlier this year outlines the paying practices of Congress. Titled "Experience Doesn't Pay the Bills," it shows that internships in Washington cost approximately $6,000 in expenses, yet most interns are expected to do the work for no compensation whatsoever. And of the members of Congress who do pay, the majority are Republicans.

For example, the study notes that in the Senate, 51 percent of Republicans offer paid internships while only 31 percent of Democrats do. In the House, it's worse: 8 percent of Republicans offer paid internships and 3.6 percent of Democrats do.

Traditionally, Democrats are more vocal in the $15 minimum wage fight, yet they appear less likely to pay their own congressional interns.

Do North Dakota's congressional delegates pay? According to the "Experience Doesn't Pay the Bills" report, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, pays her interns; Sen. John Hoeven, a Republican, offers a stipend; and Rep. Kevin Cramer, a Republican, does not pay.

Remember: Because Congress is exempt from Fair Labor Standards, it's up to each member to decide whether to pay interns. However, we think all interns should be paid, because unpaid internships have potential to show discrimination.

If it costs a person $6,000 in expenses just to be an unpaid intern in Washington, exactly what kind of applicant can afford that?

Generally speaking, the answer is simple: Well-to-do candidates. And that is discrimination.

So, yes, Congress should pay all interns.

And in the meantime, the ones who don't pay shouldn't be the ones clamoring for fair wages for all.