Senate needs its own diversity and inclusion office, advocates say

There’s already such an office on the House side

The Supreme Court is seen through a door on the Senate side of the U.S. Capitol. Advocates are calling on Senate leaders to establish a bipartisan office of diversity and inclusion. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
The Supreme Court is seen through a door on the Senate side of the U.S. Capitol. Advocates are calling on Senate leaders to establish a bipartisan office of diversity and inclusion. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted July 28, 2022 at 6:45am

Advocates are calling on the Senate to create a diversity office similar to one in the House, saying it would fill a crucial need. 

“We can’t solve problems when we don’t have data and an understanding of what it looks like,” said LaShonda Brenson, a senior researcher at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. 

The Joint Center submitted testimony to Senate appropriators this year making its case. It cited as a model the House Office of Diversity and Inclusion, which was created last Congress. That office has a new director as of this summer in Sesha Joi Moon, after Kemba Hendrix departed last year to join the executive branch. 

“If they were to establish a bipartisan office and work together as the House has done over the last several years, I think that could send a strong statement to the American people,” Brenson said.

Hill staffers should look more like the country they serve, she said, and such an office could help with recruitment and retention. It could also help track diversity. Right now, Senate Democrats release an annual survey of their staffers’ race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender, but Senate Republicans do not.

“The Senate is not representative of the diversity of the country, either its membership or its staff. And those are things that have to be changed. But you can’t wave a wand,” said Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “An office that was focused on these issues would be tremendously helpful.”

For now, the Joint Center keeps an eye on Senate staff diversity using what data it can find. This month it analyzed the Democrats’ latest survey, showing that 11 offices reported a decrease in staff who identify as nonwhite, while 35 of the 50 Democratic Senate personal offices reported an increase. In the offices that did see increases, only 31 percent saw an increase of more than 5 percent. 

The offices of Alex Padilla of California, Mazie K. Hirono of Hawaii and Cory Booker of New Jersey had the most racially diverse staffers among Democrats, while Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, Jon Tester of Montana and independent Angus King of Maine ranked at the bottom.  

Now the country deserves a more complete picture, Brenson said. At the top rungs of the ladder, senior Senate staffers are still disproportionately white, according to a 2020 report from the Joint Center that looked at both Democrats and Republicans.

Staffers who bring a range of lived experiences to an office can help lawmakers draft more effective policy, said Taylor Ware, president of the bipartisan Senate Black Legislative Staff Caucus. 

“Diversity isn’t a partisan issue,” she said. Her group, in a joint letter with other staffer organizations earlier this month, called on Senate Republicans to follow Democrats’ lead and begin releasing demographic data about its party’s aides.

On the House side of the Capitol, Moon, the newly appointed ODI executive director, hopes to expand her office’s reach.

“The initiative-turned-office has only been around for two years and in a pandemic,” she said. “So we’re in a space right now where we’re trying to promote who we are … and above anything, just really ensuring that we explain why a diverse and inclusive workforce is an essential asset.”

She plans to spread the word about working on Capitol Hill at events like this week’s League of United Latin American Citizens conference in Puerto Rico.

“Next year we have a long roster of strategic events that we want to go to, to really connect to candidates to say, ‘You too can and should come and work for Congress,’” she said. 

Moon left her job as chief diversity officer at the National Institute of Standards and Technology to lead the independent, nonpartisan office. She believes diversity cuts across party identity. 

“It can be everybody from someone like me, a Black woman of color who identifies as queer from the South, to a white, straight, cisgender man living in an impoverished community in a rural area,” she said.

“The role of Congress is to be a representation of the people’s house,” she added. “And you can’t be a representation of the people’s house if you don’t have a full representation of the people.”