Congress

House members are more diverse, but does the same go for staff?

Roughly 40 percent of new House members have hired a top staffer of color

Staffers for Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., pose in her office. Haaland pledged during her campaign that she would hire a diverse group. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

More women and people of color are serving in the House than ever before. And at least one office has fueled hopes of that diversity extending to congressional staffers.

New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland announced earlier this month that she had assembled a majority-minority team, fulfilling a campaign promise to hire a diverse staff.

“Being the first Native American woman in Congress, I felt like I needed to set an example if that were possible,” the freshman Democrat said, citing a distinction she shares with Kansas’ Sharice Davids.

But even with the most diverse House in history, it’s not clear how many other offices will follow Haaland’s example.

“I think that it requires members to be thoughtful in making sure that diversity and inclusion is at the center of their office hiring plan,” said Don Bell, the director of the Black Talent Initiative at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, cautioning that it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that lawmakers would do so. 

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Obstacles persist

Early data shows that more freshman members are hiring top staffers of color than their predecessors.

Staffing is still ongoing but, so far, roughly 40 percent of new members (39 of 93) have hired at least one person of color for a top position, according to a tracker from the Joint Center. In contrast, a report from the center last year said that only one in four House members from the previous Congress had a senior staffer of color.

Those new members are largely Democrats (who make up a larger proportion of the freshman class). Just three Republicans — Michael Waltz of Florida, Lance Gooden of Texas, and Mark Green of Tennessee — have hired a top staffer of color.

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The tracker notes the race and gender of three top staff positions: chief of staff, legislative director and communications director. The data is “unofficial,” but the Joint Center is working to verify it.

Despite the diverse hires, the total proportion of minority staffers to white staffers has dropped as more people have been hired. Through Dec. 24, about 30 percent of the new staff were people of color, according to Bell. But when the Joint Center most recently verified their data on Jan. 7, that number had dropped to 17 percent.

White staffers dominated senior staff positions in the previous Congress as well. The Joint Center reported last year that 84 percent of chiefs, 88 percent of legislative directors and 87 percent of communications directors were white.

Obstacles to diversity persist despite increased attention on the issue, said Bell, a former president of the Senate Black Legislative Staff Caucus.

Each individual office hires its own staff, so the process is decentralized. And it takes time to reach out to different networks for potential applicants, Bell said. 

But those networks do exist, as Haaland discovered when she put together her staff.

During her campaign, she signed a pledge from the progressive group Nasty Women New Mexico to “aim to hire a gender balanced staff, both in numbers and positions of power, and inclusive of people of color; a staff as diverse as New Mexico.” 

Haaland’s chief of staff, Jennifer Van de Heide, who oversaw the hiring process, said she had witnessed the value of diverse staff during her previous tenure on Capitol Hill.

“There’s just absolutely no question that people bring their life experiences to their work,” Van de Heide said. “And the more diversity you have in life experience and background … you are able to better connect to those communities.”

As a onetime chief of staff to former California Rep. Michael M. Honda, she knew where to go to find staffers of different races, genders and sexual orientation.

Van de Heide worked with Kemba Hendrix, the director of the House Democratic Diversity Initiative, which launched in 2017, as well as the Congressional Black, Hispanic and Asian Pacific American caucuses, to find potential applicants. She also tapped the résumé bank of the Progressive Caucuses.

“It takes time to be intentional about who you want to go find,” Van de Heide said. “And I think a challenge for freshman offices that are getting set up is they have so much to do all at once.”

Another obstacle for staffers and advocates is the lack of demographic data for all House staff. The Joint Center conducted its own study last year by analyzing Legistorm data as well as photographs from various resources. But without a fuller picture it’s difficult for advocates to track changes and hold specific members accountable.

Change is coming 

At present, there is no entity in the House that tracks staff demographics. But that’s about to change. 

“I think the moment is here,” Van de Heide said of the push for more diversity in Congress. She had been part of an effort to implement diversity rules before Democrats lost their House majority in 2010.

As part of the rules package adopted earlier this month, the House will establish an Office of Diversity and Inclusion, which will collect data on staff demographics and develop a diversity plan. 

Speaker Nancy Pelosi will choose a director for the office, in consultation with Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, from recommendations submitted by House Administration Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren

The director then has 90 days to submit a diversity plan to the Administration panel, which would include recommendations for recruiting and promoting a diverse workforce and developing a staff survey.

Lofgren has yet to submit any recommendations for a director, according to a committee spokesman. She will not do so until the panel is organized and its membership finalized, which would be next week at the earliest.

In the meantime, new Democratic offices can tap the House Democratic Diversity Initiative, which is still operating in the new Congress. 

Democrats may take an additional step as a caucus, and formalize what’s known as the “Rooney Rule,” named after NFL coach Dan Rooney, which involves interviewing a person of color for each opening.

Pelosi wrote in a “Dear Colleague” letter after the November elections that she hoped her caucus would “formally adopt” the rule as a “first step.”

That hasn’t happened as yet. Caucus rule changes go through the Committee on Caucus Procedures, which has not yet organized, according to a senior Democratic aide. The aide said the process was “in the works.”

While the House looks to formalize some hiring processes, outside groups like the Joint Center are attempting to keep track of hiring and hold new members accountable. So is Nasty Women New Mexico, the group that backed Haaland.

But it’s not just the new members who should bear the responsibility, some advocates say.

“This idea that it is now on the shoulders of this new crop, that’s not true,” said Meta Hirschl, an original member of Nasty Women New Mexico who developed the group’s staff diversity pledge.

“I think everybody should look in the mirror … and then look at your staff and look at your state and say, ‘Does this truly reflect the people?’” Hirschl said. “And if it doesn’t, fix it.”

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