Top House staffers are still overwhelmingly white, study finds
Only 18 percent are people of color — a boost from 2018, but not enough to look like America
The senior aides who hold the most sway with members of Congress have grown more diverse in recent years, but still not nearly as diverse as the nation as a whole.
A new study by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies finds that people of color now occupy 18 percent of the top staff positions in the House — a 4-point increase since 2018, but still much lower than the 40 percent of Americans who aren’t white.
“The decisions [Congress] makes can impact all Americans,” said LaShonda Brenson, the report’s author. “If the House staff who advise policymakers to make decisions are not diverse, then they cannot accurately reflect the perspective of all Americans.”
Looking at specific races and ethnicities, only two groups were better represented among top staffers than the population as a whole: Whites and people of Middle Eastern and North African descent. Whites made up 1,005 of 1,226 top House positions (82 percent) while MENA staffers occupied 17 top spots — 1.4 percent, compared with 0.6 percent nationally.
People of color have more representation among the actual representatives than their closest aides, the report finds: “Over a quarter (26 percent) of voting members of the U.S. House of Representatives sworn into the 117th Congress are people of color, but only 18 percent of all top House staff.”
The study notes that the House has moved to address the lack of diversity since the group’s last report in 2018, most notably by establishing a new Office of Diversity and Inclusion.
While there is a representation deficit among top staffers, an ODI survey shows that staffers in general look more like America. In 2021, 69.3 percent of House staffers who responded to a survey were White and 15.2 percent were Black — both slightly overrepresented in comparison to their share of the U.S. population (60 and 12.4 percent, respectively).
“We know that top staffers in particular have significant influence and access to members,” said Brenson.
Brenson blamed the drop-off in diversity among more senior staff on a number of factors, including low pay for junior positions that can drive staffers off the Hill before they rise through the ranks and a hiring culture that relies on a member’s or chief of staff’s often less-than-diverse personal networks.
The report defines top staffers as chiefs of staff, legislative directors and communications directors in members’ offices, plus staff directors on committees and the chiefs, policy directors and communications directors in leadership offices.
Democrats hire the bulk of high-level staffers of color: 82 percent. But that still doesn’t match either the 40 percent of Americans or 37.9 percent of Democratic voters who aren’t white. Much of that reflects the fact that members of color hire more staffers of color than their white colleagues: Congressional Black Caucus members account for 42.9 percent of top staffers of color, even though they’re not quite 25 percent of the Democratic caucus. That said, white Democrats still hire more staffers of color than their GOP peers: 14.8 percent of their top aides, compared with 5.1 percent.
The Joint Center further found that more progressive Democrats tended to hire more people of color to high positions — 40 percent of the top staffers for Congressional Progressive Caucus members are people of color, compared with 23.6 percent among Blue Dog Coalition members. Among the GOP, the arch-conservative House Freedom Caucus members filled 9.2 percent of their top positions with people of color.
The report also calls out some representatives by name, highlighting 115 members who represent districts where people of color make up at least a third of the population but who have no top staffers of color.
To ascertain the race of staffers, Brenson looked at photos and surnames, then contacted congressional offices for confirmation and to find staffers that she initially missed. The report identified 1,226 senior aides in total.
The report is based on a snapshot of employment data on June 30, meaning staff changes since then aren’t included. That also comes before a new minimum salary for House staffers — $45,000 — set by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and increases in office budgets came into effect in September.
The relatively low pay for staff has been cited as a cause for the lack of diversity on the Hill. Congressional staff positions often operate like glorified internships that lead to lucrative lobbying jobs, but not everyone can afford to live on poverty wages in a city as expensive as Washington. Given the racial wealth gap — white families have eight times the wealth of Black families on average — low pay makes it harder for otherwise qualified candidates of color to seek staffer positions.
Brenson said she’s hopeful that the pay boosts and continued work of the House’s diversity office will lead to an increasingly diverse congressional workforce. She pointed to findings that freshman members hired more people of color to the top positions (20.8 percent) than returning members (16.6 percent) as evidence of ODI’s impact already.