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The glass ceiling that diverse Senate staff still face

The U.S. Capitol is seen from the East Front Plaza at sunset on June 7
Greg Nash

The overall number of staff of color in Democratic committee offices has increased significantly from 2020, according to a new survey released by the Senate Democratic Diversity Initiative last week. Among the Senate Democrats’ 18 committee offices, the average percentage of staff of color increased from 29 percent in 2020 to 35 percent this year. (To date, Senate Republican offices have not released staff demographic data.)

Yet, even amid progress from Senate Democrats, data on staff diversity in the most senior positions in committee offices reveals how much work is still needed, according to a new Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies report, Racial Diversity Among Senate Committee Top Staff. 

While people of color account for nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population, they are only 13.2 percent of Senate committee top staff (staff directors, deputy staff directors, chief counsel, general counsel, and policy directors). And the numbers are even worse among the highest-ranking staff positions — only 7.9 percent of committee staff directors are people of color.

This lack of racial diversity is a problem because the U.S. Senate’s 20 full committees are responsible for substantive legislation, oversight of government agencies, and confirming presidential nominees. Committee top staff draft and edit legislation, organize hearings and propose witnesses, hire and manage other committee staff, and advise senators who lead committees on which potential nominees to support and which to oppose (which can effectively block the White House from even nominating a candidate for a position).  

Both Democrats and Republicans lack committee top staff diversity. Although people of color make up 37.9 percent of Democratic voters nationally, they account for only 11.1 percent of Democratic Senate staff directors and 20 percent of other Democratic full committee top staff. People of color account for 29.6 percent of Republican voters nationally, but only 5.3 percent of Republican Senate staff directors and 11.6 percent of other Republican full committee top staff. 

The lack of diversity among committee top staff is a problem even among senators who report diverse numbers among their entire staff (which suggests staff of color are often concentrated in lower-level positions). For example, Black Americans accounted for 26 percent of Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s (D-Mich.) voters in her last election, 26 percent of Stabenow’s personal office staff, and 16 percent of her committee staff.  However, Black Americans account for none of the top staff in Stabenow’s DC personal office or her committee office.  

Similarly, while Black Americans accounted for 34 percent of Democratic voter turnout in Delaware and some of Sen. Tom Carper’s (D-Del.) personal office and committee office staff (17 and 10 percent, respectively), they account for none of Carper’s top DC personal office or committee staff.  

To be sure, some senators who lead committees may claim that they have people of color in positions like deputy policy director or deputy communications director, and that they consider these individuals to be part of their “leadership team.” But this argument does not justify the fact that there are so few people of color in the very top positions like staff director, deputy staff director, chief counsel, general counsel, and policy director (which are generally the highest paid). Candidly acknowledging the Senate’s challenges with committee top staff diversity does not demean existing staff of color — but if addressed can open new professional opportunities to them.

To solve this problem, more committee offices should formalize their diversity and inclusion plans, and consistently measure progress and adjust recruiting and retention strategies. Senators should ensure several staff of color are in mid-level positions that feed into top positions. The U.S. Senate should also follow the lead of the U.S. House of Representatives by establishing a bipartisan Office of Diversity and Inclusion to help all Senate offices track progress and improve staff diversity. Absent immediate bipartisan cooperation to create such an office, Senate Republicans should at least match the Democrats by creating their own Diversity Initiative to monitor progress by disclosing demographic data and support Republican offices in recruiting diverse staff.  

We know that representation matters. And we know that most Senate committees are falling short in recruiting and retaining people of color to the top staff positions — and that this facilitates systemic biases that reproduce inequality. Increasing diversity among key staff would enhance the Senate’s deliberation, innovation, legitimacy, legislative outcomes, and overall effectiveness. This problem can be fixed — but only if Senate leaders acknowledge the problem and take steps to address it.

LaShonda Brenson, Ph.D., is the Senior Fellow for Diversity and Inclusion at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

Tags Debbie Stabenow Tom Carper

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