Congressional staff should represent America

Two weeks ago, the world didn’t end.

Despite some fears that releasing demographic data on Senate Democratic staff makeup would result in a backlash, offices are still standing. Senators and staff still have their jobs. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise anyone that fear long prevented the collection and public release of this data. Confronting a problem is always difficult. But, just like being sick, ignoring it doesn’t make it go away.

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To understand the true scope of a problem, we need comprehensive data. Capitol Hill’s diversity problem is no different. Thankfully, Senate Democrats stepped forward and pulled back the curtain. Although many already knew the diversity problem existed, the data that Senate Democrats released meant that, for the first time, we can actually measure the diversity problem on Capitol Hill.

But this is just the first mile on the road to fixing the problem. We need more data. Senate Democrats have acted, and Senate Republicans and the House of Representatives should follow suit. At stake is the fundamental understanding of the extent of the unacceptable and even dangerous lack of diversity among staff – and how we can respond. Although the Joint Center is currently working on a House top staff diversity report that mirrors our 2015 Senate report, it is incumbent upon leadership to begin collecting comprehensive data on how well staffs reflect the communities they are elected to serve – and make it public.

We need data on the kinds of jobs that minorities hold, because not all positions are created equal. An office that is 35 percent people of color -- which is far better than the average -- still has a major problem if all of those individuals hold an entry level position. In addition, we cannot forget about staffers back home. We need to know the demographic breakdown between district staff and D.C. staff, as the respective office employees have different responsibilities. District staff are often the front-facing representatives for their member, helping constituents work through problems, attending community meetings and reporting back to their boss, and more. It is a clear problem when the diversity of the communities served are not reflected in a member’s D.C. staff, and an equally damaging problem if the district office does not reflect it.

It may be difficult to see now, but we are poised to remember this period as the moment Capitol Hill finally underwent a needed culture change. Only eight months ago, when I started this movement for action as a Senate staffer, there were few offices that seemed to be engaged, let alone thinking, about making their offices diverse and their environments inclusive. In fact, the summer of 2016 and national unrest it brought may have been one of the worst in recent memory for staffers of color on Capitol Hill and most jarring to communities of color across America.

We have action, including Rep. Barbara Lee’s (D-Calif.) amendment addressing implicit bias and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) staff diversity initiative announcement. Today, there are more offices on both sides of the aisle being intentional about ensuring that people of all backgrounds and experiences have a seat at the decision making table. Not a token position. Not some quota. A meaningful and equal opportunity to be heard.

We are not there yet. Many more elected members need to act, and more Americans need to demand transparency and thoughtfulness on a subject that affects us all. The march toward making the most democratic branch of our government truly representative has begun. Change is happening. There is no turning back.

Don Bell is director of the Black Talent Initiative at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and a former president of the Senate Black Legislative Staff Caucus.


The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.