What the latest numbers show on Hill staff diversity

‘Black voters are human beings and they deserve representation,’ says think tank leader

A few recent reports give some insight into staff diversity on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
A few recent reports give some insight into staff diversity on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted July 29, 2021 at 6:15am

A few recent reports on staff diversity highlight the enduring challenge of making the top tier of federal government employees look like the nation they serve.

While some progress has been made, staffers on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue continue to be whiter than the rest of America, despite ongoing pledges and programs from Democrats to diversify. Republicans have not made similar commitments.

Senate Democrats earlier this month released their annual staff survey, which tracks employee diversity in personal offices and on committees based on race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation. The Democratic staff across the 18 committees has grown more variegated, with the average percentage of employees of color increasing to 35 percent, compared to 29 percent in 2020.

Still, those figures are less than the 40 percent of the U.S. population made up of people of color. And another new survey, from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, found that the top tier of committee staffers is more homogenous: Just 7.9 percent of staff directors and 15.7 percent of other high-level staff were people of color.

The Joint Center’s report looked at both majority and minority committee staff: Democrats did slightly better hiring people of color (11.1 percent of staff directors and 20 percent of other top staff) than Republicans (5.3 percent and 11.6 percent, respectively).

The focus on staff diversity isn’t just for diversity’s sake, said Joint Center President Spencer Overton, or merely about an abstract notion of equality. It’s about the very fundamentals of the U.S. constitutional system of representative democracy.

“The essence of democracy is representation, and race is connected to representation,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons why the Voting Rights Act is important … so people are actually represented here. Representation, legitimacy, accountability — all of those suggest we look at the numbers.”

The Joint Center also analyzed the Senate Democrats’ survey to compare how racially diverse senators’ staffs were compared to the senators’ home states, finding 33 of the Senate’s 50 Democrats have personal offices at least as diverse as their states.

That data was released as part of Senate Democrats’ diversity initiative, which aims to increase diversity on the Hill. Senate Republicans do not release their hiring figures.

Democrats have more than met the representative target with one minority group: LGBTQ people. According to the latest Gallup data, an estimated 5.6 percent of Americans identify as LGBTQ. Almost every Democratic senator’s personal office met that, with most exceeding 10 percent.

The results were a bit more mixed at the committee level, with four under the general population reference point, but LGBTQ individuals still made up between 10 percent and 20 percent of staffers on most committees.  

Since 2015, the Joint Center has tracked congressional staff diversity, starting with personal House offices and expanding its focus in subsequent reports. The think tank also recently released reports looking at President Joe Biden’s efforts to hire representatively diverse top-level staffers.

One focused on Biden’s nominees for assistant and undersecretary positions, finding that 16 percent and 13 percent, respectively, were Black, a slight increase from President Barack Obama’s nominees in 2009.

Another, which focused on the chiefs of staff to Biden’s Cabinet secretaries, found that 13 percent — two of the 15 — were Black. Both reports note that those figures fall below the percentage of Biden voters in 2020 who were Black — 22 percent – though they do get close to the 13.4 percent of Americans who are.

Overton said it’s incumbent on Democrats to do more than just meet that 13.4 percent level to offset the lower representation in Republican administrations, noting that Black people accounted for about 4 percent of Donald Trump’s appointments. “If your goal is 13 percent in a Democratic administration, you’re essentially complicit in the underrepresentation of Black people in political appointments,” he said.

Given that Black voters made up only about 3 percent of Trump’s 2016 votes, Overton added, “he actually did better,” relative to his vote share.

Overton argued Democrats like Biden need to recognize the support they get from the Black electorate with more staff and appointees who look like them.

“There is a common trope about Democrats taking Black voters for granted and Black voters being a tool to mobilize like money,” Overton said. “No. Black voters are human beings and they deserve representation.”

The Joint Center’s reports on the White House focused on African American hiring because they came out of its Black Talent Initiative, which aims to increase the number of Black officials in the upper echelons of federal government. So, they don’t fully reflect how diverse the Biden administration is. The other 13 chiefs of staff aren’t uniformly white: Dan Koh at the Department of Labor is Korean and Lebanese, for example, while Tarak Shah is “is the first person of color, first Indian American, and first openly LGBTQ person to serve” as the Energy Department’s chief of staff, per its website.

The Joint Center will release a more comprehensive report on administrative hiring in August based on government data obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, rather than its own head counts focused on specific positions.