Slowly, Capitol Hill is embracing diversity

With bipartisan leadership, the Senate is slowly changing its culture and becoming more diverse

Published January 15, 2018 8:00AM (EST)


Congress is still not truly representative of all Americans. But it’s getting better and the momentum will not be stopped.

According to a Joint Center report, although people of color make up approximately 36 percent of the population, just 7.1 percent are senior staffers in the Senate. This is a major problem, as Congressional staff have immense power in our democracy: they help negotiation of legislative language, develop our nation’s budget, and communicate with constituents during times of crisis. To date, Congress as a whole has shown little interest in creating a more diverse and inclusive environment.

But in the last year, a coordinated effort has succeed in bringing much-needed change to Capitol Hill. The progress is clear: Senate Democrats adopted the Rooney Rule in the spring, ensuring that diverse candidates are recruited and interviewed more consistently in candidate pools. In June, Senate Democrats collected and released demographic data for the first time. In the fall, House Democrats announced that they too would consider adopting the Rooney Rule and finally create a House Diversity Initiative to ensure they fully represent the constituents they serve. There has been progress among Senate Republicans as well, with Senators Tim Scott, R-SC, and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., taking a leadership role in working to recruit and assist people of color who desire to serve the American people as members of the Senate staff. This work will expand networks and pools of candidates for hiring managers and surely open the door for the recruitment and hiring of a more diverse pool of qualified individuals.

These efforts have culminated in greater representative leadership from members of Congress. The recent appointment of Dana Gresham as chief of staff to Senator Doug Jones, D-Ala., and the thoughtfulness the senator has had with regard to diversity in recruitment and hiring should be applauded as a victory. The announcement this week that Senators Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Cory Booker, D-NJ, will join the Senate Judiciary Committee, one of the most consequential committees on Capitol Hill, signifies a major step forward as well.

These milestones however, remind us of how far we have left to go. The appointment  of Dana Gresham means the Democratic Caucus finally has an African-American chief of staff, but highlights that the party still lags behind Republican colleagues, even as black voters make up 23 percent of the Democratic base. On the powerful Senate Agriculture and Armed Services Committees, there are no black or Latino staffers. While the appointments of Senators Harris and Booker on the Judiciary Committee are important, according to data collected by Senate Democrats last year, there were no black staffers on the committee. This lack of representation is unacceptable in a country where policy decisions made in Washington impact all communities.

The best way to make the best policy is by including diverse set of backgrounds and experiences that reflect America as a whole. There are qualified individuals of all backgrounds capable of doing these jobs, but many elected officials are not committed to opening the door of opportunity to them. Simply put, if an office is not looking for a diverse pool, it is not creating the most effective and talented applicant pool because whole sections of the population are being excluded.

2018 must be a year for us to continue making progress. The Joint Center, staff associations on Capitol Hill, and other organizations will continue to dedicate ourselves to ensuring Congress has staff that is reflective of all of us, regardless of party. We will continue to work toward structural changes that will make Congress more transparent, and to increase awareness of the need for diversity. In 2017, we took the first steps toward dismantling the old structures that perpetuated a lack of diversity.

In 2018, we must remove the rest of these barriers and build a new foundation upon which we can build a more representative Congress.

By Don Bell

Don Bell is director of the Black Talent Initiative at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and a former president of the Senate Black Legislative Staff Caucus.