John Glenn and the 'Last Plantation'
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John Glenn, the astronaut turned senator, was an American hero who dedicated his life to national service. In 1962, he became the first American to orbit the earth, when he blasted off into space in the Mercury capsule and circled the earth three times. A decade later, he made history again when he was elected to represent Ohio in the Senate. For his numerous contributions and service, President Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, the nation’s highest civilian honor. However, Glenn made history in ways that are often forgotten. In 1978, Glenn famously labeled Congress the “Last Plantation,” to highlight how the institution was exempt from federal workplace laws, making the legislature one of the last places where racial discrimination was allowable. The senator spent much of his twenty-year career on Capitol Hill working to end this congressional double standard that exempted lawmakers from the laws they passed.  

As chairman of the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs in 1989, Glenn held a hearing to eliminate the congressional “double standard” and apply civil rights legislation to the Senate. He opened the proceedings by saying, “What we have done in this Congress is to enact laws which we ourselves have not been willing to follow.” For example, in 1964, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin by employers. However, this law did not apply to Congress since it required executive oversight and would violate the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches. So, while this law removed barriers for women and African Americans to work in workplaces dominated by white men, Congress remained the exception. As Glenn testified “it is like a doctor prescribing medicine for a patient that he himself would not take.”

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During the hearing, numerous pieces of evidence were submitted that exhibited racial and gender discrimination. For example, 81 percent of Senate committee staffers earning $20,000 a year or less were female, while 70 percent of those earning $40,000 or more were male. In addition, African Americans accounted for only 64 out of 2,700 senior policy positions in the Senate, approximately 2.4 percent.

As Glenn described, the stratified system of employment that left women and African Americans out of top staff positions reeked of hypocrisy and damaged the image of CongressWhile Congress eventually passed the Congressional Accountability Act in 1995, which applied thirteen civil rights, labor, workplace safety, and health laws to the legislature, the Senate remains far from an example of a model employer.

In a 2015 study that I authored for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, I found that out of the 336 most senior staffers in the Senate, only 24 were people of color. Although people of color make up over one third of the American population, they represented approximately 7 percent of the top staffers in the Senate. This inequality is even more disconcerting when you consider people of color are missing from top staff positions in Senate offices that represent large Black and Latino populations. In the top 10 States where African Americans represent 17 to almost 38 percent of the population, black staffers only accounted for 1.7 percent of the total top staff positions in those U.S. Senate offices in Washington, D.C. Latino representation fared slightly better, with Latino staffers holding 8.5 percent of available top positions in Senate offices from the top 10 states where Latinos make up from 15 to 46 percent of the population. My findings show that the lack of diversity in the Senate is not a Democratic or Republican issue, but represents an institutional failure to incorporate women of all backgrounds and men of color into key staff positions.

When Glenn called Congress a plantation nearly four decades ago, he did not do so lightly, as he understood the symbolic importance and political necessity of having an equal and representative legislative workforce. Congressional staff are the invisible force in American policymaking. When constituents write a letter to their representative or senator, it is the staff that writes back. When lobbyists meet with congressional offices, they most often meet with staff that work on the issues related to their agenda. When a senator speaks during a hearing, it is the staff that has prepared their remarks. In fact, it is staff who has organized the entire hearing. This is not to suggest that Members of Congress are not the principal actors in the Capitol. Members of Congress make their own final decisions on legislation, but it is their staffers who present options and recommendations, construct agendas, and implement decisions. If there are only a few senior staffers of color in the Senate, how can we ensure communities of color issues will be heard and understood?

As an institution that is supposed to represent the interests of the nation, more than any other branch of government, it is problematic that the congressional workplace does not resemble the diversity of the nation. The lack of diversity that is pervasive throughout the congressional workforce robs the institution of legitimacy and affords little confidence in Congress’ ability to govern an increasingly diverse citizenry. The first step to fixing this problem is to establish a bipartisan office of diversity to collect resumes of qualified applicants of color, screen candidates, and help Senate offices fill vacancies. In addition, Republicans and Democrats must ensure that this office has the resources to help fill senior level appointments.

But, perhaps most importantly and as I learned during this research, Congress must be transparent about who works on Capitol Hill. The persistence of racial inequality in the Capitol is undoubtedly linked to Congress’ unwillingness to collect important demographic information about its employees. Without data, there can be no accountability. To achieve racial equality in the congressional workforce, Congress must act to end its own double standard, which allows it operate as a privileged workplace with its own set of rules.

John Glenn reminded millions of Americans of the United States’ ability to do the impossible. We should honor his legacy by doing the improbable, promoting fairness and equality in the Senate workplace. This would make the Senate worthy of the designation of the “World’s greatest deliberate body” and close its long and overdue chapter as the “Last Plantation.”

James Jones is a postdoctoral research associate at Rutgers University, where he is writing a book on racial inequality in the congressional workplace. You can reach him at james.r.jones@rutgers.edu or follow him on twitter @blackcapitol

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