The 118th Congress is the most diverse in history, with a quarter of members identifying as nonwhite. But disparities persist as lawmakers choose the people who really run things behind the scenes — their staff.
Just 18 percent of top staff for new and returning members are people of color, according to data compiled by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. That’s significantly lower than the 40 percent of Americans nationwide.
This freshman class is not outpacing the previous crop of new members when it comes to hiring racially diverse candidates for top roles, the Joint Center found.
There are bright spots in the data: Top staff working for returning members of the House and Senate are more diverse in this Congress than the last. And certain groups, like the Congressional Asian Pacific American Staff Association, have celebrated key new hires. This month, Sonali Desai was named executive director of the House Democratic Caucus, while Moh Sharma became director of member services for Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries.
“We’ve definitely made really great strides this Congress,” said Maureen “Mo” Elinzano, co-president of CAPASA and communications director for Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif. “We’re always so proud when progress is made. But there’s more that should be done.”
Barriers to entry
Elinzano has worked on the Hill for nearly four years and has seen signs of change, beginning with a stint in 2018 in the office of Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray.
“I definitely saw progress,” Elinzano said. “I felt like there were more people of color in my office. And that’s when I joined CAPASA, and through that I started to see that there were people like me working on the Hill.”
But reminders of the obstacles that aides face are embedded in the numbers, like the latest findings from the House Office of Diversity and Inclusion. While staff diversity has increased in recent years overall, it falls short in top staff positions and continues to lag behind national demographics, the office found.
These disparities may stem in part from the relatively low pay rates on the Hill compared with the private sector, according to LaShonda Brenson, senior researcher at the Joint Center, which was founded in 1970 to push for more political clout for Black Americans.
“There’s also an insular culture that I think exists on the Hill that makes it difficult for diverse candidates to kind of poke through,” Brenson said. “And there’s a lack of prioritizing diversity within hiring, retention and promotion within offices. All of these things work together to make it harder for people of color to get these positions.”
Brenson defines “top staff” as chiefs of staff, legislative directors and communications directors — traditionally the three most powerful roles in a member’s office.
Black congressional staffers, in particular, continue to trail their colleagues. While Black Americans account for more than 12 percent of the country’s population, just a little over 5 percent of top congressional staffers are Black, according to the Joint Center data.
“So there’s significant disparity as it relates to our population,” Brenson said. “And that’s in contrast to the great statistics showing more people of color being elected to national office across both parties.”
The gap is even more stark for Latinos, who make up roughly 18.4 percent of the nation and just over 6 percent of top staff positions, the Joint Center data shows.
“The number of Latinos in leadership positions remains low and demonstrates the work that remains to be done to increase diversity in Congress,” said Dagoberto Acevedo, a spokesperson for the Congressional Hispanic Staff Association. “We will continue encouraging offices to work with us to identify Latino candidates for offices and committees and to also provide better pay and benefits for staff to help with recruitment and retention.”
Filling the gap
These diversity figures are not static, and in the early weeks of the new Congress, the Joint Center has pushed for greater awareness as lawmakers seek to fill around 115 remaining top staff positions.
For the first time, the group published its data in the form of a tracker and “report card,” complete with a score for each member of Congress. The score compares the racial diversity of a member’s district to that of top staff. With an option to sort by political party, users can see that Democrats in both chambers have hired more people of color than their Republican counterparts.
The group last updated its numbers on Jan. 24 and plans to do so regularly. To determine race, researchers look at photos and names, and then contact congressional offices to ask for confirmation.
The Joint Center recently partnered with 70 national organizations to send letters to new and returning lawmakers urging them to consider candidates of color for top- and midlevel hires. The think tank also warned that racial diversity on the Hill could easily slide backward if members don’t make it a priority while staffing up.
Brenson pointed to promising steps in recent years, like the creation in 2019 of the House Office of Diversity and Inclusion, which conducts its own demographic surveys of congressional staffers. The office has worked to expand recruitment efforts at colleges and universities, and it offers resources for candidates, like mock interviews and resume reviews.
Some Democrats worried that the office would take a hit as Republicans reclaimed a majority in the House, but so far the office remains intact under Sesha Joi Moon, the director appointed by former Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Rules ranking member Jim McGovern had harsh words for the new rules package adopted by Republicans but praised a few aspects, specifically calling out the ODI. “I am glad to see some changes that Democrats made have survived,” he said in a statement earlier this month.
But no equivalent office exists on the Senate side, though Brenson said her group is agitating for the creation of one. Diversity among top Senate staff has lagged, with just one incoming senator — John Fetterman, the Pennsylvania Democrat — hiring a nonwhite person for a top-three position as of this week, according to the Joint Center.
“I think it would send a strong signal to the American people,” Brenson said.