Here's what Congress needs to do next to address the lack of staff diversity
© Greg Nash

The 116th Congress holds the most racially and ethnically diverse group of representatives ever elected, but is not enough. Members still must do more to ensure that congressional staff reflect the diversity of our nation—especially among top positions such as staff directors, chiefs of staff, legislative directors, and communications directors.

New Members of the U.S. House are making progress. The Joint Center’s May 2019 data showed that people of color accounted for 19.85 percent of top staff hired by newly-elected U.S. House Members (25.84 percent of Democratic top staff and 7.14 percent of Republican top staff). This rate is higher than the 13.7 percent of diverse top staff in the House as a whole reported in the Joint Center’s September 2018 study. By comparison, people of color comprised 7.7 percent of top staff hired by newly-elected U.S. senators. Despite progress, top staff diversity numbers in both the House and Senate remain significantly lower than the 39 percent of people of color in the U.S.

In the time that the Joint Center and partners like the NALEO Educational Fund have focused on this issue, Congress has taken important steps. Congress has become more transparent about staff diversity, and has appropriated funds for paid internships to build a more racially-and-economically-diverse pool of candidates for entry-level staff positions. However, much more should be done.   

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For the past three years, for example, Senate Democrats led both chambers by releasing racial/ethnic data on staff in Democratic senators’ personal and committee offices. In future reports, Senate Democrats should disclose data on diversity by position. This would reveal which senators have diversity in critical mid-level positions like legislative assistants and press secretaries that serve as pipelines to top positions, and which senators concentrate the bulk of their staff diversity in lower entry-level positions.

Unfortunately, Senate Republicans have yet to release any data on the diversity their staffs, despite representing states that have a significant portion our nation’s residents of color. Senate Republicans should disclose this data immediately, and report it annually.

On the other side of the Capitol, earlier this year the U.S. House passed a rules package that included the creation of a new Office of Diversity and Inclusion. The House also released a comprehensive in-depth analysis of racial/ethnic data from a survey that included responses from 51 percent (5,290) of U.S. House staffers. In the next reiteration of the survey, the U.S. House should disclose the partisan breakdown of respondents to reveal whether the survey results are representative of House staff as a whole. Future U.S. House studies should also present disaggregated staff data by individual member offices and committee offices so that the public can see how staff diversity correlates to the diversity of the population in each member’s district and in the nation as a whole. 

For both the Senate and House, future studies should disaggregate each member’s personal office staff diversity data by state/district offices and the Washington office.

The lack of top staff diversity impairs the ability of members of Congress to understand the diverse perspectives of their districts, and to accurately represent all Americans. Congress would function more effectively with top staff that more accurately reflect America’s diversity. In forthcoming reports that share and analyze 2020 data on the diversity of top and mid-level congressional staff, the Joint Center will work to ensure members of Congress continue to make progress. 

Dr. LaShonda Brenson currently serves as the Senior Fellow of Diversity and Inclusion at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies where she leads its congressional staff diversity efforts. Prior to her current role, she served as a Civil Rights Analyst at the U.S. Commission for Civil Rights. At the Commission, Dr. Brenson organized national briefings and wrote reports on municipal fines and fees and its impact on minority communities, minority voting rights, and women in prison. Previously, she was the Research Director at Project Vote, a national, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization founded on the belief that an organized, diverse electorate is the key to a better America.