The House office tasked with attracting and supporting diverse staff could succumb to Republican cuts, despite protests from some staffers, advocacy groups and Democrats.
Appropriators last week reported out a fiscal 2024 Legislative Branch bill that would strip the House Office of Diversity and Inclusion of its funding. The move would eliminate the office while shifting some of its functions to the Office of the House Chief Administrative Officer as part of a planned reorganization of services, according to Republicans on the committee.
It’s a move that the GOP argues would streamline human resources and save millions of dollars. But it’s also a critique of the ODI itself and the kinds of services it provides.
“While the office is being eliminated, the functions of the office will continue to be performed in a more efficient and cost-effective manner, without focusing on identity politics,” House Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Mark Amodei, R-Nev., said at a markup of the bill last week.
The ODI was created in the 116th Congress as an independent, nonpartisan office tasked with fostering “diversity among House employing offices, so that the House workforce reflects the diversity of America,” according to its website.
“Historically, the House has been overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly well-to-do and overwhelmingly Christian,” said Daniel Schuman, a policy director at Demand Progress, a nonprofit that supported the creation of the office. “And it’s important to understand who’s coming to work in the House and make sure that everybody has a pathway to being here, not just those of means.”
ODI has 12 employees and is led by Sesha Joi Moon, who took the reins in 2022 after stints with the Department of Commerce and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. It had a $3.5 million budget in fiscal 2023.
“Currently, ODI, which maintains relationships on both sides of the aisle, remains committed to its mission to advance a representative and qualified workforce by ‘putting the people in the people’s house,’” Moon said in a statement. “As for the future of ODI, our office will of course comply with any forthcoming legislation and directives from leadership.”
The office was the culmination of “decades’ worth of effort in the House to address problems of staff pay, recruitment, retention and diversity,” Schuman said.
On the issue of racial diversity, the House has made some strides. In 2019 and 2021, Black, Asian or Asian American and Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander staffers were roughly proportionally represented when compared with nationwide demographic data, according to ODI’s 2022 annual report. Hispanic and Latino staffers, however, were underrepresented.
In addition to conducting demographic surveys of staffers and congressional witnesses, the office provides candidate services for prospective House staff; hosts diversity, equity and inclusion training and programs on staff resources; and celebrates heritage months, among other services.
Those are crucial functions in a Congress that some staffers feel doesn’t accurately reflect the country, according to staff groups.
“Voting to strip funding from the Office of Diversity Inclusion is just, frankly, a brazen attempt by Republicans to make the halls of Congress less representative of America,” said Michael Suchecki, a spokesperson from the Congressional Progressive Staff Association, who works in the office of Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton. “Republicans go on and on about cancel culture. But Republicans are trying to cancel representation and whitewash Congress. It’s unconscionable.”
“The House Office of Diversity and Inclusion was created to ensure that the House remains open to and inclusive of everyone, and has worked to provide a foothold in an institution that continues to struggle with diversity among its staffing,” the Congressional Black Associates, a bipartisan House staff association, said in a statement. “By eliminating this office, we curtail the very mission of inclusion that so many before us have endeavored to achieve.”
The elimination of funding is tied in the appropriations bill to the reorganization of the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer. That would include the creation of a Housewide Office of Human Capital Management within the CAO to streamline all “staff-centric House Resources,” according to a May letter, obtained by CQ Roll Call, from CAO Catherine L. Szpindor to House Administration Chairman Bryan Steil, R-Wis.
Szpindor also laid out plans for an Office of Talent and Development, which would “provide consultative support for recruiting, hiring, developing, and retaining talented and experienced staff,” according to the letter.
Szpindor did not explicitly recommend absorbing ODI. Republican appropriators, however, said it could be rolled into the Office of Talent and Development and that funding would be “provided consistent with that plan,” according to the Appropriations Committee report on the bill.
The Legislative Branch bill would provide the CAO with $213 million in fiscal 2024 for salaries and expenses, a $1.5 million increase over the current fiscal year but $14.7 million less than the office requested.
The CAO, through its communications director, declined to comment.
Amodei said at the Appropriations markup that the restructuring is expected to increase accessibility to human resource services provided to House staff by “creating a one-stop shop, while also saving millions by streamlining duplicative efforts.”
He also lobbed some complaints at ODI. There was $15,000 spent on a staff retreat; thousands of taxpayer dollars used to purchase customized swag; tens of thousands of dollars spent on partisan, diversity events for Black History Month and Women’s History Month; and $25,000 for racial-equity group training, he said.
“This is a function that should continue, but this particular function needs some supervision,” Amodei said.
Schuman, however, dismissed concerns about costs, which account for a fraction of the $6.9 billion Legislative Branch budget for the current fiscal year.
“It is not unreasonable to have this type of effort within the CAO’s office. But it makes more sense to have it independent,” he said. “This seems like it’s coming more out of a desire to address political concerns that ultimately undermine the operations of the House.”
The perception that the elimination of the ODI was politically motivated was reinforced by amendments to the Legislative Branch bill adopted by the Appropriations Committee’s Republican majority. It’s also part of a larger effort to strip language relating to diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives across all appropriations bills, according to a senior Republican House aide.
The amendments prohibited the use of legislative branch funds for DEI training or for “discriminatory action” against a person who speaks or acts “in accordance with a sincerely held religious belief, or moral conviction, that marriage is, or should be recognized as, a union of one man and one woman.”
A Democratic amendment that would’ve restored funding for the ODI fell short on a party-line vote.
“Eliminating diversity programs is essentially sticking our heads in the sand and pretending that all people are treated equally. And you know that’s not the case,” California Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee said at last week’s appropriations markup. “We can’t avoid these conversations just because they make us feel uncomfortable.”