Senate aides say there’s work to be done on staffer diversity, after Tim Scott airs criticism

‘Black staffers and staff of color are asking to be seen and not be overlooked,’ a Senate aide said.

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., talks to a reporter on his way to a Senate Republican luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington on June 10, 2020. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., talks to a reporter on his way to a Senate Republican luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington on June 10, 2020. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted June 11, 2020 at 5:00am

Sen. Tim Scott called out the lack of racial diversity among staff in certain Senate offices Wednesday, which highlighted how little data is available on staffer demographics. It also got staffers and senators talking about how to tackle the problem.

Although there are varying opinions on how to boost diversity, many agree that a major problem is a lack of data on diversity of race, gender and socioeconomic backgrounds among staff. Scott, the only black Republican in the chamber, said Wednesday that he’d like the Senate to conduct a study of staffer demographics and pay.

The Senate Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee has tried for years to get a study off the ground on staff compensation in the Senate but has not succeeded in getting a report with the full scope of data.

The subcommittee and full Appropriations panel approved language for fiscal 2019 that specifically required comparisons among Senate staff, the executive branch and the private sector and required a study comparing staff compensation within the Senate with respect to gender, race and ethnicity.

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But the final measure, which was wrapped into a larger package of spending bills for floor action, watered down the requirements on Senate compensation comparisons and stripped the requirement to evaluate compensation with respect to gender, race and ethnicity. Providing compensation data is voluntary for any Senate office or committee.

“The majority leader has blocked a staff diversity study for the last several years,” Sen. Christopher S. Murphy told CQ Roll Call on Wednesday.

The Connecticut Democrat, who sits on the Legislative Branch Subcommittee, was glad to have Scott on board in favor of a staffer demographics and pay study, but he said the South Carolina Republican needs to talk to his party’s leadership about moving forward.

“I’m glad that Sen. Scott is interested, but Sen. McConnell has stood in the way of us getting a diversity study,” Murphy told CQ Roll Call, referring to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

When asked if the Legislative Branch panel would include the more detailed reporting requirement in the fiscal 2021 spending measure, Murphy wasn’t sure. “Sen. McConnell’s office made it very clear that he would not support any comprehensive study of racial diversity in the Senate; maybe that will change now,” he said.

A McConnell aide responded to the charge that the majority leader blocked the staff study by saying that the appropriations packages with the revised language were bipartisan and bicameral agreements.

Senate Rules and Administration Chairman Roy Blunt said if there’s interest in a study of Senate staff pay and demographics he’s open to exploring it, but he said he hasn’t heard anything about it recently.

“This is an issue that it seems like was largely dealt with a couple of decades ago or a decade ago and we’ve sort of moved away from,” Blunt said. “But if somebody wants to talk about that and has any sense that this is a study that’s helpful, I’d be glad to discuss it.”

Most of the data available about Senate staff demographics comes from the Senate Democratic Diversity Initiative, a caucuswide effort to increase diversity in committee and personal office staffs.

The SDDI was codified in 2017 and encourages offices to use the NFL’s “Rooney Rule” — named after the late Dan Rooney, who owned the Pittsburgh Steelers — which required that teams interview at least one minority candidate for head coaching vacancies. Democratic offices are formally encouraged to consider at least one minority candidate when interviewing for an open position.

More than 13 percent of the U.S. population is black or African American, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, but Scott and Democratic Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California are the only black members of the Senate. Only 10 African Americans have ever served in the U.S. Senate to date.

Scott, in response to critics on Twitter who say he is being used as he leads the party’s effort on overhauling policing, referenced Booker and Harris and staff diversity.

“There are only two black Democratic Senators, stop pretending there’s some huge racial diversity gap in the Senate. Ask my Dem colleagues what their staffs look like…I guarantee you won’t like the answer,” Scott posted on Twitter.

“Well, he’s not wrong,” one black Senate aide and Senate Black Legislative Staff Caucus (SBLSC) member told CQ Roll Call.

[Scott rebukes critics who say he’s being used by GOP on police legislation]

But SDDI data released in June 2019 shows that Harris and Booker lead some of the most diverse staffs among Senate Democrats. Seventy percent of Harris’ staff identified as nonwhite in the 2019 data, with 33 percent identified as Latino and 26 percent as black. Sixty-one percent of Booker’s staff members are nonwhite, with 27 percent Latino and 30 percent black.

Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii is the only other Democrat with staff diversity in the realm of Booker and Harris, with 69 percent of staff identified as nonwhite, 49 percent Asian or Pacific Islander and 23 percent Native American, Hawaiian or Alaskan.

A need for more diverse backgrounds among Senate aides is one area that staffers from both sides of the aisle can agree on.

“Yes,” said a GOP Senate aide when asked if diversity was a problem in the Senate. “There’s always a need for more diverse voices, and there’s room for growth.”

“There are some Senate offices that are doing better than other offices and some that are not doing well at all,” a black legislative aide for a Democratic senator told CQ Roll Call. “Based on data, we can say committees have a problem,” he added.

While nationwide attention on police brutality and injustice is shining a light on race and disparities, some steps toward finding solutions can start closer to the Hill, including hiring more people of color.

“There needs to be a direct pipeline for black people and other people of color,” the SBLSC member said.

Emily Benavides is the communications director for Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio and a member of the advisory committee for the Congressional Hispanic Staff Association, or CHSA. “It shouldn’t just be incumbent on people of color to voice the need for diverse perspectives,” she said.

The SDDI data doesn’t show how many senior staffers and top aides are from different backgrounds, which leaves open the question of how many high-paid and leadership roles are filled by people of color and how many are in low-paid junior staff roles.

“Diverse staff are not often in positions that are senior,” said the aide to the Democratic senator. “Senior staff are the ones, in addition to members, that have a lot of influence over who gets an interview and who ends up in the position.”

Very few senators have a black chief of staff, but Scott does. Jennifer DeCasper has worked for Scott since 2011, when he was in the House, and was promoted to chief of staff in December 2014. There is very little data available on demographics of Republican offices.

At least eight organizations are calling for the Senate to follow the House’s lead and establish an Office of Diversity and Inclusion, which could provide independent data on staff diversity.

The House created that office at the start of the 116th Congress and voted to make it permanent at the recommendation of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. The office is an independent, nonpartisan entity that works as a resource for House offices by increasing awareness of diversity issues among staff in Congress.

“Staff who reflect the diversity of Members’ constituencies also are ideally equipped to anticipate and effectively address those constituents’ concerns,” wrote eight groups, including Issue One, Pay Our Interns Action Fund, Demand Progress and others, in a May 19 letter to the Senate Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee.

Jonathan Carter, president of the SBLSC, voiced support for the idea of a central office focused on diversity in the Senate.

“I think it’s incumbent upon all organizations and entities to put in place an office whose sole purpose is to ensure that diversity and inclusion is represented in hiring and retention practices,” he told CQ Roll Call.