Congress must address racial pay inequity among staffers on the Hill

Congress must address racial pay inequity among staffers on the Hill
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Washington may be a small town, but Capitol Hill is even smaller. Stories get traded like favors, rumors outnumber facts and secrets aren’t “secret” so much as they are actionable intelligence. In my experience as a Senate staffer and president of a staff association, congressional staffers are as much paid to craft legislation as you are to have your ear to the ground.

During my time, I heard a lot, some good and some bad. Some are just anecdotes that get washed away with the news cycle, while some stories, like those around pay discrepancies, stick with you for years. One story I remember involved two fellows, both talented individuals, great team players and valued colleagues, who worked in the same office. One fellow, a white male — who had less experience, fewer credentials and spent less time in the office.

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He was paid and given benefits, while the other fellow, a black woman — who was objectively more accomplished, had more tenure and did essentially the same work — was unpaid and forced to figure out how to survive long enough to find a permanent position. To many people this isn’t particularly surprising. In fact, it may even evoke memories of your own journey.

Unfortunately, that non-white staffers are underpaid compared to their white counterparts isn’t just an anecdote. It’s a reality. New LegiStorm data confirm it’s worse than many imagined. White staffers earn more than staffers of color — a lot more.

In the U.S. House of Representatives, white staffers take home a salary on average $900 more than their Asian and Pacific Islander counterparts, $2,000 more than Latino counterparts, and $3,500 more than black counterparts. It’s even worse in the Senate, where white staffers made approximately $4,800 more than Asian and Pacific Islander staffers, $1,800 more than Latino staffers, and an outrageous $7,000 more than black staffers.

The disparity is even more dramatic in senior positions where there is already a pervasive lack of diversity. In 2015, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found only 7.1 percent of senior Senate staffers across the political spectrum were people of color, whether chief of staff, legislative director, communications director, or staff director for a committee. By contrast, in 2015, people of color accounted for 36 percent of the U.S. population.

Non-white chiefs of staff make an average of $7,580 less in the House and $2,330 less in the Senate than their white counterparts. Non-white legislative directors make $1,630 less in the House and $5,690 less in the Senate. Among communications staffers, white staffers are paid an average of $6,350 more in the House and $4,420 more in the Senate than non-white staffers.

Even if we give Congress the benefit of the doubt — job roles vary across the respective chambers and offices — the math doesn’t lie and it absolves no party and no chamber. This culture, where Congress doesn’t care to protect or promote equality among its own employees is the same culture that has allowed harassment, discrimination, and the lack of inclusion to persist, preventing Congress from effectively working for all Americans and costing taxpayers money.

The insights provided by LegiStorm confirm that our Congress — ostensibly our most democratic branch of government — is in crisis in more ways than one. Not only are our legislative offices failing to actively recruit, hire and promote qualified people of color, they are failing to fairly value the experience and service of their very own staffers of color, who are some of the most talented public servants our nation has to offer. It’s an institutional failure.

The private sector, for all its failings, has made attempts recently to at least address this pay gap, with some companies ending the practice of asking for prior salaries, providing greater transparency, and collecting demographic data on new hires. Congress needs to catch up.

There may be some movement. The House Legislative Branch Subcommittee, responsible for appropriating funds for congressional activities, recently included language in the appropriations bill that would require a study of the salaries and benefits of staffers compared to the executive branch and private sector. The report would review pay disparities based on gender and race. The Senate should take action and review their chamber as well.

Congress cannot be truly inclusive and reflective of the constituencies it represents or have the moral authority to lead America toward a fairer economy and society if it continues to undervalue staffers of color. It’s up to all of us to hold our elected members accountable and demand better.

A representative democracy isn’t much good if it exists in name only.

Don Bell is director of the black talent initiative at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, an organization that conducts research and designs policy solutions to improve life in communities of color. He is the former president of the Senate Black Legislative Staff Caucus.