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Congress should prioritize diversity so government reflects Americans

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While the biannual employment carousel for members of Congress has already begun, August is the unofficial start to hiring season for staff. Everyone from chiefs to interns fill their calendars with meetings as folks look to move in or move up following Election Day. As this rite of passage begins anew, staff diversity must also come back into focus.

For a country that is more than 50 percent female and nearly 40 percent people of color, increasing diversity in Congress must be a priority not only to ensure representation, but also to promote an ethical culture in our government. The House and Senate have a lot of work to do on this. Members of Congress remain disproportionately white and male compared with our population, and this disparity persists among staff.

{mosads}A report by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies last year found that only 7 percent of top Senate staff were people of color. In the House, gender imbalance remains a glaring problem. Although nearly half of all House staff are women, only about one-third of House chiefs of staff or legislative directors are female. Instead, women are overrepresented among junior and administrative positions. The LGBTQ community also continues to push for better staff representation.

The lack of diversity on Capitol Hill is certainly worthy of discussion, but what does it have to do with ethics? Turns out, quite a bit. A study by Northwestern University and Columbia University found that Americans perceive diverse companies as more ethical than homogenous ones. There is also research suggesting that diversity can influence ethical behavior in organizations. As one academic noted, the social phenomena known as “group think” demonstrates that “more homogenous groups experience more conformity than diverse groups.” The professor added that diversity in institutions can provide “checks and balances” for unethical behavior arising from the desire to conform.

It makes sense that institutions that hire, empower and promote individuals with diverse backgrounds and perspectives will encourage their staffs to voice opposing viewpoints on matters of policy and ethics. Examples from the private sector show that a renewed commitment to diversity can be critical to improving ethics and efficiency. Congress would do well to follow suit, as the experience of staffers bears this out.

As an investigative attorney for the House Ethics Committee, I observed that the members who found themselves in the crosshairs were often those who promoted a culture of homogeneity where staffs were discouraged from disagreeing with leadership. Furthermore, when members hire the children of campaign donors instead of searching for diverse candidates, staffs become disproportionately white and wealthy as well as compound the influence of special interests on Congress.

Diversity among staffs has also been critical to exposing and redressing unethical behavior on Capitol Hill. Following the rise of the #MeToo movement, at least eight members of Congress resigned or announced their retirements amid allegations of sexual misconduct. This reckoning would not have happened without women in senior positions speaking truth to power. The legislative response to prevent future misconduct was also led by female members and staffers in Congress.

Regardless of which party controls the House and Senate next year, there will be substantial movement as caucus and committee leadership takes shape. That means Congress will have another opportunity to review and improve diversity. Despite underwhelming numbers, diversity initiatives by leadership and hiring practices by members such as Sens. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.) are helping to reverse this trend.

Ethics reforms addressing money in politics can remove bars to entry for women and minorities to pursue positions in government. Likewise, when Congress makes diversity a greater priority within its ranks, our government will better reflect its constituents, and staffs will be more empowered to speak up when ethical questions arise.

Donald Sherman is deputy director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. He served as counsel on the House Ethics Committee and the Senate Homeland Security Committee and was chief of staff to the general counsel at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Tags America Congress Culture Diversity Ethics Government Policy Tim Scott

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