Jun 29, 2020

Diversity in Congress: Three Key Takeaways on the Current Makeup

By Praveena Javvadi

As Americans look to legislative reform to address systemic racism across the country, one important thing to consider is the impact of diversity within Congress. The 116th Congress is the most racially diverse Congress to date, with record numbers of Black, Asian American/Pacific Islanders, Native American, and Hispanic representatives. However, it is important to note that despite this increase, Congress is still lagging, and not just among members. 

Congressional staff, the advisors to our representatives, are not reflective of the racial diversity of the country either. These staff are often the boots on the ground working behind the scenes to create and pass legislation that impacts the day to day lives of Americans, and therefore, it is critical that they better reflect the diversity of experiences and backgrounds of Americans as a whole. 

Last year, the Bipartisan Policy Center hosted an event, “How is Congress Doing? Evaluating the Legislative Branch,” where panelists—including Modernization Committee Chairman Derek Kilmer (D-WA)—analyzed and discussed the legislative branch through multiple lenses, one of which being diversity. Here are some key takeaways from the event regarding diversity in Congress: congressional staff needs to be more diverse, representatives can play a large role in improving diversity amongst staff, and systemic changes to recruitment and retention are essential to improving diversity. 

Diversity Among Congressional Staff 

During the panel, Dr. Elsie Scott, interim president of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, discussed a report from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies that highlighted the lack of diversity amongst congressional staff. The report focused on racial diversity amongst the top three staffers in each congressional office, which they identified as the chief of staff, communications director, and policy director.  

According to the report, only 13.7% of senior House staff are people of color even though they make up 38% of the U.S. population at large. Importantly, diversity among House staff is most present in offices of nonwhite members of Congress, with the highest being amongst members of the Congressional Black Caucus. On the other hand, white Republican and Democrat representatives all had nearly the same percentage of people of color in their offices’ top staff positions.  

Diversity among the top House staffers matters because these staffers have a large impact on the policy being made. In districts where the majority of the population is comprised of people of color, having congressional staff that represent their interests is important.  

While a lot of representatives responded to the report by stating that their district staff included people of color, district staff are often less directly connected to the policymaking process in Washington. This is why having diversity in the top three staff positions that the Joint Center’s report highlighted is particularly important.  

Diversity Amongst Members of Congress 

As previously mentioned, the 116th Congress marked the most racially diverse House yet in terms of members. This representation is important for many reasons, but most importantly, one panelist remarked that representatives tend to be more active on issues related to the demographic groups they represent. Even though Democrats are a more racially diverse cohort than Republicans in Congress, emphasizing the need for having diversity across party lines is essential to making an impact on the lives of all Americans, but especially people of color.  

Inclusion, Equity, and Retention 

Many factors go into building and maintaining a diverse staff on Capitol Hill, and it can be a long climb up the ladder for staff to reach these senior positions. Therefore, offices need to consider how to recruit and retain people of color among the legislative branch workforce. While competitive pay is a factor, as it is in any occupation, success and job satisfaction are also key.  

Ensuring that staffers earn a livable wage in DC may be necessary to recruiting a more diverse congressional staff, but this isn’t always easy to achieve. Congress generally pays lower salaries for staff compared to other parts of government, making recruitment and retention of employees who come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds even more difficult.   As one panelist recalled, one Senator paid their staff comparable to their home state’s wages instead of DC’s, so as to not appear frivolous to voters. Staff leaving the Hill after short stints for more lucrative jobs in the executive branch or the private sector is just one challenge.  Panelists remarked on how, in their experience, the ways younger staff define success may be a part of the reason for low retention rate. What staff seek may not match up well with the rhythms and cycles of Congress: legislation stalls, members lose reelection, committee chairs get swapped. Minority representation among staff will only be hindered if offices cannot find ways for staff of color to also experience high job satisfaction. 

Diversity and inclusion must be a greater priority if Congress is to change the current trends around staff. The report released by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies made congressional offices more aware of their lack of representation, which is necessary when developing intentional efforts aimed at diversity and inclusion. Now it is up to representatives to institute practices in their own offices that ensures diversity among their staff. Building a Congress that works for Americans, requires that congressional offices work to represent all Americans.

Is Congress Working for You?