According to a 31-page report released this week by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, top Senate positions, which include coveted positions such as Communications Director and Chief of Staff, are severely lacking in diversity, ultimately leading to problems with transparency plus accountability that spell trouble for the voting process.
The report, “Racial Diversity Among Top Senate Staff,” researched and written by James R. Jones, a Columbia University Ph.D. candidate, has pointed to a number of alarming statistics that pose a big problem which comes down to the fact that, “people of color are not in the room when important decisions, that reflect all Americans, are being made,” Jones tells TNJ.com in an exclusive interview.
At a glance, the report reveals:
• Although people of color make up over 36 percent of the U.S. population and over 28 percent of the citizen voting age population, they represent only 7.1 percent of top Senate staffers. Of the 336 top Senate staffers, only 24 are staffers of color (12 Asian Americans, 7 Latinos, 3 African-Americans, and 2 Native Americans). African Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population but only 0.9 percent of top Senate staffers, and Latinos make up over 16 percent of the U.S. population but only 2.1 percent of top Senate staffers.
• Senate offices representing states with large Hispanic and African-American populations hire few senior staffers of color. Latinos make up from 15 to 46 percent of the population in ten states (AZ, CA, CO, FL, IL, NJ, NM, NV, NY, and TX), yet hold only 8.5 percent of the available top staff positions in these states’ U.S. Senate offices (five positions in AZ, FL, and NM). African Americans represent from 17 to almost 38 percent of the population in ten states (AL, DE, GA, LA, MD, MS, NC, SC, TN, and VA), yet hold only 1.7 percent of the total top staff positions in these states’ U.S. Senate offices (one position in SC).
• Top Democratic Senate staff members are much less diverse than the Democratic voting base. While those who self identified as Democrats nationwide were 22 percent African American and 13 percent Latino, top Democratic U.S. Senate staff as a group is 0.7 percent African American and 2.0 percent Latino. There is no African American chief of staff, legislative director, or communications director in the Washington DC area personnel office of any Democratic Senator.
Born out of his observations as an intern on Capitol Hill in 2006, the report, says Jones, shows that, “Those who are in decision-making positions don’t really reflect the diverse constituencies that members of Congress represent. What this project really does is documents, on an empirical level, the level underrepresentation on Capitol Hill.”
He explains, “I noticed this, as an intern and even later when I worked there during college, in my interaction with staffers when I would go to meetings, interact with people, and go around to different offices. I rarely saw people who looked like me. Congressional staffers play an incredibly important role in the policy making process that really wasn’t discussed. These are the people who are writing the laws, interacting with constituents and taking meetings with various stakeholders. They play a vital, pivotal role in the American policymaking process.”
“These top staffers wield significant influence, and increasing diversity among this group will enhance legislative deliberation, innovation, equity, and legitimacy,” said Spencer Overton, President of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. “Increasing the presence of people of color in senior staff positions in the Senate will amplify the voices and perspectives of communities of color and in the process enhance the quality of legislative deliberations. Racial diversity in the congressional workforce is important and increasing racial representation will strengthen our democracy.”
According to Jones, his report is timely and relevant in that “this kind of research hasn't been done in over a decade since 2006 when Diversity Inc., ran a cover story that sort of stated the Senate was the worst employer for diversity in the nation,” he shares.
Shocking takeaways of the report?
In talking to over 100 staffers for his dissertation, Jones initially had an idea of what the levels of representation of people of color were in the Senate, but was shocked that in the case of African Americans in top staff positions, the number has virtually remained unchanged in the last 25 years. “That is startling and sobering when you think about the racial progress we’ve made in the American political system, electing more people of color to Congress, electing our first African American president, but that really hasn't trickled down to the staff levels and the Senate,” he notes.
He adds, “I would also say what’s particularly surprising is the lack of racial representation of among Democratic Senators. Democrats have this idea, and rightly so, they are a Party of diversity – and we are. But the report highlights that the diversity among Democratic Party voters is not reflected in top staff and the Senate. As we talked about in the report, there are no African Americans in the roles of Chief of Staff, Communications Director or Staff Directors of Senate committees in the Democrat camp.”
At the moment, Tim Scott, a Republican, is the only person in the Senate who has an African American Chief of Staff: Jennifer DeCasper.
“I will say, as a caveat, that we are looking at a particular snapshot in Congress – data from 2015,” says Jones. “So if you were to look at December of last year, the numbers would have looked different. There was a Black Chief of Staff who worked for Senator Mary Landrieu and there was a Black Legislative Director who worked for Ben Cardin. Both of these people have since left. But the point is we shouldn’t be dependent on one or two senators to have diversity for he rest of the Party. No matter when you’re looking, there should be better representation."
So, what can the Senate do to increase diversity?
For starters, Jones suggests that they begin to collect demographic data on who works in the halls of Congress. “This is a requirement that Congress has mandated private workplaces and federal agencies do. At any other job, the employer would collect data on the race and gender of their employees and even people they’re interviewing for positions. That is not the case for Congress. Congress has exempted itself from these types of requirements. We know that this data is incredibly important for providing transparency and accountability in these various organizations. And the fact that Congress has exempted itself from this requirement means there is little transparency about who works in Congress. As a result, voters really cannot hold their elected officials accountable for having a staff that actually represents them,” he says.
Jones counts this recommendation as the key to actually fixing the problem, citing that if this data were made public, Senators would make different choices about their hiring practices.
He also suggests instituting The Rooney Rule. “We could also push for The Rooney Rule from the NFL that is used to diversify leadership in thinking about head coaches for NFL teams. When you have a vacancy, you interview at least one person of color for the position. While this does not guarantee an increase of racial representation, it opens up the interviewing process and gives people of color more experience in interviewing and and builds them into the social networks of people who have hiring capabilities. And it just makes the process much more open. Even if the person interviewed does not get hired on the first go round, the candidate of color will now make an impression on the hiring manager and that hiring manager may think about that diverse candidate in a subsequent go round or make a recommendation to another hiring manager if there’s another job opening. So much of the hiring in Congress is done on personal network and who you know, so the process to diversify a more reflective workforce requires the process to be a little more open," Jones concludes.