New report finds top Senate staffers are more diverse than in 2015 but still predominantly white

Bonnie Cash

While congressional offices have grown more diverse since 2015, diversity among top Senate staffers remains disproportionately low, a new study shows. 

The study, conducted by LaShonda Brenson of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, found that 11 percent of top Senate staffers were people of color, up from 7 percent in 2015. However, the number is still significantly disproportionate, as people of color makeup 40 percent of the American population.

Brenson restricts the definition of “top staff” in Senate offices to three positions: chief of staff, legislative director and communications director.

She described the increase of diversity as “modest,” but did acknowledge the steps that Congress has taken to be more transparent about the makeup of its staff since the 2015 report. 

For example, since 2017 Senate Democrats have released a report on the racial makeup of their staffs and in 2019, the House created its own Office of Inclusion and Diversity to help spur more diverse hires.

Senate Democrats have also ushered in their own diversity initiative, following the lead of the NFL and implementing their own “Rooney Rule.” The rule calls on Democratic offices to interview at least one person of color for every job opening.

This year, Senate Democrats reported seven senators had staffs that were over 50 percent nonwhite. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) had the most diverse staff, with 65 percent of his staff identifying as nonwhite.

Brenson’s report notes that Booker is one of only four senators to have more than one person of color in their top staff. No senator had a top staff that consisted entirely of people of color. Half a dozen Senate Republicans — including Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), the only Black Republican in the chamber — had one person of color in a top staff position, though Senate Republicans have not released annual diversity reports like the Democrats. 

Nonetheless, the lack of diversity remains a bipartisan problem. Per the report, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia — the states with the highest percentage of Black residents that are represented by two Democratic senators — have no Black people in top staff positions.

The same can be said for Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi, the states that have the highest number of Black residents with two Republican senators. 

Overall, the report found that Black people makeup 3.1 percent of top staff positions, Latino people 3.8 percent and Asian American/Pacific Islander makeup 2.7 percent — all fractions of their national representation.

When asked about the new report, an aide for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) told The Hill: “Senate Democrats have a diverse caucus and staff and are working to increase that diversity on all levels.”

Brenson pointed to a number of contributing factors as to why the problem persists, despite progress. One of them is how hiring is still conducted on Capitol Hill. 

“A lot of it has to do with how hiring is done on the Hill. A lot of times the folks who are in these positions to make hiring decisions often times choose within their own network that is likely not diverse,” Brenson told The Hill. “I think hiring managers need to think more about not just what is on someone’s résumé, while important, but also the kind of experiences that can’t be written on a résumé, but can be felt in a room when you’re negotiating policy, when you’re interacting with different communities and different constituents.”

A good example of how more diversity could help with more inclusive legislation, Brenson said, is the coronavirus pandemic and the lopsided toll that it has taken on communities of color.

“If you look at what’s going on right now with the pandemic, African Americans, specifically, are disproportionally dying and getting ill from COVID-19. There’s a failure in the Trump administration and Congress to enact real policy that going to provide significant relief.”

Brenson continued, saying that Black-owned businesses have also been unable to take advantage of the resources that the federal government has provided during the pandemic, such as the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). Studies have found this to be true, including a recent report by Accountable.US that discovered businesses owned by Black women received a disproportionately few amount of PPP loans. 

By comparison, House members appear to have top staffers that are more diverse, though not by a large margin. A 2018 study conducted by the center showed that 13.7 percent of top staff positions in the House were held by people of color.

The Hill has reached out to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for comment.

Updated at 6:02 p.m.

Tags Chuck Schumer Cory Booker House Mitch McConnell Senate Tim Scott

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