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Is Congress still ‘The Last Plantation’? It is for staffers, says James Jones

New book argues that staff diversity is crucial to democracy

James R. Jones was once a Hill intern himself. Now he studies the demographics of congressional staff. “We need transparent hiring data,” he says.
James R. Jones was once a Hill intern himself. Now he studies the demographics of congressional staff. “We need transparent hiring data,” he says. (Courtesy Princeton University Press)

For James R. Jones, Congress was a tale of two internships. His first was great, with senior staffers who mentored him and gave him real work to do. His second was “demoralizing.” 

“In one office I was nurtured and in the other I was ignored,” he writes in his newly released book, “The Last Plantation: Racism and Resistance in the Halls of Congress.”

“The way that I got through it was to develop a community with other Black staffers,” Jones said in an interview this month. 

But he didn’t see as many in the Capitol hallways as he would have liked. Jones went on to get a doctorate in sociology from Columbia University, where he set out to study what he had seen firsthand — a legislative workforce that looks less diverse than the country it serves. 

His findings — that just 7 percent of senior Senate staffers were people of color, compared to more than a third of the U.S. population — were published by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in 2015. Now a professor at Rutgers University-Newark, Jones has built on that initial research, arguing that staff diversity is urgently needed.

“When representation is most important is when ideas are being debated, formulated and put into legislation,” he said. “Oftentimes, that is outside of the public view. That’s where all the action is happening.” 

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Q: Why did you write this book?

A: I wrote the book because racial inequality in the congressional workplace is the most important issue affecting our democracy that we’re not talking about. 

Congressional staffers are people who are doing the work. And these people are not reflective of the rich diversity of the country, and so that is going to have an impact on how policy is made.

Q: What was it like being a Black intern on the Hill?

A: It was a tale of two internships. My first internship was with a Black lawmaker and as a part of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, so I was really nurtured. I had a lot of professional development, both in my office and through the foundation. 

And then I was an intern who applied on my own. Unfortunately, a lot of times interns come in to do administrative work, but there isn’t much guidance and structure, and offices don’t take the time to make sure these opportunities are meaningful for students. 

That experience was lonely. I felt invisible. No one really knew me, and it was just an isolating and I would say marginalizing experience. The way that I got through it was to develop a community with other Black staffers.

Q: How have things changed for congressional staff since you were an intern 15 years ago? 

A: We now have [annual funding] to pay congressional interns who work on the Hill, which is available to all offices. There was the House Office of Diversity and Inclusion, before it was unfortunately shut down. There was the Committee on the Modernization of Congress that was trying to really reform and improve the functioning of the congressional workplace. 

I think there have been some great strides, but at the same time, there is so much work to be done. 

In one of my policy papers, we analyzed who Congress was paying [in 2019 with the new funds for interns]. The money still went overwhelmingly to white students and students who went to elite schools. 

Q: Who is your target audience? 

A: The book is for everyone who is concerned about our American democracy and its future.

Congressional staffers are the ones shaping policy. Without them, the legislative branch would cease to function. And after they spend a number of years on the Hill, they go off to work in other places. They might go work in the White House, or in corporations and lobbying, or nonprofits and think tanks. 

One of the most memorable interviews I had [in my research] was with a Republican Senate staffer, and he was telling me that [to climb the ladder] in D.C., you need to have experience in Congress. But you also need to do that fairly young, right? Because the pay is low. So you need to get in this system. 

Q: Do you think you can sway hiring managers on the Hill?

A: One of the things I’ve come across is just how hard it is to change Congress, and how resistant lawmakers and also staffers are to changing this institution, because staffers are there to protect their boss. 

Many times I’ve been on Capitol Hill and staffers won’t talk to me, even though I think my work benefits them in the long run, but it might harm the reputation of their boss. 

I think the way that we change Congress is to make staffing a hot-button issue. We should pick our elected officials not necessarily just based on their policy positions, but on who they are hiring and have hired. 

Q: What are some concrete changes that could help?

A: One strategy that’s quite popular is the Rooney Rule, which is that you have to interview at least one person of color. It doesn’t necessarily guarantee anything will change, but at least it could be a part of the system.

But my policy recommendation has always been transparency. We need transparent hiring data. That seems like a very wonky academic answer, but I actually think it’s key.

I did a policy paper for the Joint Center [in 2015] on Senate representation, and we found that 7 percent of top staffers were people of color, whereas people of color made up over a third of the American population.

So I did that policy paper, and then it got into the hands of activists, and they were pressuring Chuck Schumer to do something about the dismal hiring practices of Democrats. And so I believe from 2017 on, we have had data on the racial composition of Senate Democratic staff [published by Democrats every year]. And this data is not necessarily perfect, but it does give us a window into who they hire.

One classic example was the difference in staff between Dianne Feinstein’s office and Kamala Harris’. Same state, highly diverse — but one office was extremely white, and the other was more representative of the state. 

Q: Senate Democrats release their annual survey, but Senate Republicans don’t have anything like that, and Congress is under no mandate to collect hiring data.

A: I think there’s a lot of goodwill on Capitol Hill to improve the congressional workplace and make it more accessible, but without any type of accountability, we can’t be sure it’s going to change. 

This is the lesson we’ve seen over the last three decades, going back to the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act. But all these efforts don’t actually lead to any type of accountability, and I think sometimes that’s on purpose. 

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