Members of Congress are failing to hire diverse top staffers — here’s why that’s a problem
This week, President Joe Biden will deliver his State of the Union address, laying out his policy agenda before Congress. Congress choosing to act upon the president’s proposed measures is one thing, but how they’ll accomplish anything at all depends, in part, on another matter entirely: the teams congressional members assemble to work for them.
Top congressional staffers are the backbone of Congress, yet very few pay attention to the critical role they play in the institution.
Top staffers provide services to all Americans, including shaping the trillions of dollars that make up the U.S. federal budget, making decisions on how the government spends your tax dollars, working with the media to shape the narratives and news stories regarding the issues you care about, and providing oversight for federal agencies with nearly 4 million civilian and military workers.
Positions such as chiefs of staff, legislative directors and communication directors, are crucial in advising our elected officials as they make decisions that affect all Americans, making it imperative that the make up of top staffers be reflective of the make up of the United States.
This is why it is troubling to see a lack of diversity among the top staffers hired to support the members of the 118th Congress, especially as this Congress proves to be the most diverse in our nation’s history. According to a microsite launched by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies after the midterm elections, almost 92.6 percent of top staff positions have already been filled as of Feb. 1. Of the top staff hired by new members so far, 18 percent are people of color, and 5.2 percent are African American.
According to these numbers, the top staff of the freshman members of the 118th Congress are failing to match the top staff diversity numbers achieved by the 117th Congress.
With people of color accounting for 40 percent of the U.S. population (African Americans are 12.4 percent), these low numbers are incredibly concerning for several reasons.
Simply put, diversity among congressional staff members, particularly those in mid- to upper-level positions, means that our national legislators will better understand and address the concerns of their constituents, especially among those hailing from marginalized communities.
We’re living in a pivotal moment, with many Americans concerned with the current direction and future of our country. A poll conducted just before the midterm elections by theGrio found that Black voters, “are greatly concerned about the economy, inflation and affordability of healthcare and housing.” These findings line up with those from a Joint Center poll released last year, where Black Americans expressed feeling “personal economic pressure and … pessimistic about the direction of the country.”
To best address these matters and push forward meaningful legislation to tackle them, members of Congress need top staffers who understand firsthand the experiences of constituents. The perspectives and talents of racially diverse top staff would allow new and existing members of Congress to not only best serve their communities, but also help dismantle the structural inequality in laws passed by Congress.
As is becoming increasingly clear, congressional staffers continue to face many hurdles and challenges in their positions. In 2021, we noticed a disturbing trend of Black staff members leaving Congress due to a lack of professional growth and promotion opportunities, low pay, and cultural hardships. Moreover, when staffers of color leave, they are not always replaced with others of similar backgrounds, which can further diminish the number of people of color in lawmakers’ offices.
While there has been some improvement, there is more work to be done to bring systemic change to Congress, and it cannot take place without the full assistance and leadership of people of color within those halls of power.
We need our congressional leaders to uphold their solemn vow to work on behalf of us, and that starts with hiring advisors and staff members from our communities and who look like us. We need our congressional representatives to understand that the rights and well-being of these staffers should also be prioritized, and that can be done by adopting a diversity plan that emphasizes inclusion and allocates services and tools for their entire teams.
As we await to hear President Biden’s plan, we’ll also continue to keep an eye out on efforts being taken by members of Congress to diversify their teams. A multiracial democracy is possible for our future, but it will take effort on the part of our lawmakers to make it happen — starting in their offices.
LaShonda Brenson, Ph.D., is the senior researcher at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
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