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Senate Democrats Adopt Staff Diversity Rules

New rules will increase the diversity in caucus staff, Schumer says

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, center, and Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz have been pushing for more diversity among Senate staff. Also pictured, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, center, and Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz have been pushing for more diversity among Senate staff. Also pictured, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Senate Democrats have taken a formal step to codify their push for staff diversity in the Senate. 

Lawmakers approved new conference rules at the Democrats’ policy lunch last Tuesday, which encourage offices to use the NFL’s “Rooney Rule,” the requirement named after the Pittsburgh Steelers’ owner Dan Rooney that teams interview at least one minority candidate for head coaching vacancies. Democratic offices are now formally encouraged to consider at least one minority candidate when interviewing for an open position.

According to rule text shared with Democratic chiefs of staff and obtained by Roll Call, the rules would also cement the Senate Diversity Initiative that is run through the Democratic leader’s office. Former Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada launched the initiative, and his successor as minority leader, Charles E. Schumer, has supported its mission and hired a new director.

[Senate Staff Diversity Efforts Turn to New Congress]

“The more diverse the Senate is, the better it serves the American people,” Schumer said in a statement. “These new rules are a big step forward and will help increase the diversity in our caucus staff.” 

The rules stipulate that each Democratic personal, committee and subcommittee office can determine its own hiring practices. But, the rule goes on to state, “to the extent practicable, such offices shall: (1) engage with the Senate Democratic Diversity Initiative to identify qualified candidates for vacancies; (2) engage with congressional staff associations and outside stakeholder groups that represent diversity to solicit résumés; and (3) interview diverse applicants for all vacancies.”

Schumer first announced that he would move to change conference rules at a meeting of the 2044 council last month. The group is comprised of lobbyists and former Capitol Hill staffers who work with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to encourage diversity among congressional candidates, and gets its name from the year when minorities are projected to surpass 50 percent of the U.S. population. Schumer’s remarks were first reported by Politico, and confirmed by two people at the meeting.

[Schumer Backs Senate Staff Diversity Effort]

Democratic Sens. Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Cory Booker of New Jersey have been working with the 2044 council and leading a renewed push to diversify Senate staff.

“The Senate Democrats want to make sure that we have staff in leadership positions that reflect the diversity of views and experiences across the United States,” Schatz said. “This is an area in which we have failed so far and this is the first and more formal step to doing better. Now we have to execute it.”

Schatz described the conference rules as a “first step” when asked how they would be enforced.

“There’s a whole implementation conversation that has to happen,” he said.

The start of the new Congress has led to a renewed push to diversify Senate staff, especially in the senior ranks. Although there are varying opinions on how to boost diversity, many agree that a major problem is a lack of data on diversity of race, gender, and socioeconomic backgrounds among staff.

But staff and lawmakers often point to a December 2015 report from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies that found racial disparities among senior Senate staff. Of 336 top Senate staffers, the report found 24 aides of color.

Booker noted a key obstacle to diversifying staff is not having data on staff makeup, since currently no office is tasked with collecting that data. He suggested offices could collect the data themselves.

“These numbers aren’t hard to get,” Booker said. “I think it’s something we should collect and there can’t be accountability without objective data.”

As lawmakers work to figure out how to enforce the new rules, staffers cheered the new measure. Leaders of the staff associations representing black, Asian, and Hispanic staffers issued statements calling the move a step in the right direction.

“It’s not enough to just talk about the need for a more diverse workforce in Congress. We need leaders to recognize the unique challenges staffers of color face and work to address them,” said Mike Inacay, vice president of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Staff Association. “That’s what makes these new caucus rules so significant. For the first time ever, we’ll have firm rules in place that will help offices hire more staffers of color.”

Lewis Myers, the new president of the Congressional Black Associates, noted that there needed to to be a bipartisan approach to diversity. 

“The failure has been the lack of diversity that has persisted for decades in the House and Senate,” he said. “The success is when members in both chambers and on both sides of the aisle actually take diversity seriously. Not until then will we be able to turn this failure inside-out in hopes of success.”

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