Bill Could Be Big Step Toward Increasing Diversity on Capitol Hill

A new push for Congress to lead by example in getting more people of color in top staff positions on Capitol Hill takes cues from corporate America.

The effort comes after a News4 I-Team report highlighted the fact that lawmakers in the U.S. House and Senate don't have to follow the same rules they require for almost every other employer on diversity and inclusion.

The Senate Black Legislative Staff Caucus rolled out a draft resolution to create the Office of the Chief Diversity Officer of the Senate. Similar roles already exist within major corporations and local governments, and supporters say it would be a necessary step toward putting elected officials in the best position to represent the interests of all voters in government.

"Having people with diverse experiences and backgrounds in the decision-making room is necessary from a policy perspective and good politics for Senators," the SBLSC's Don Bell told the I-Team in a statement.

The resolution also has the support of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who told the I-Team, "The more diverse the Senate is, the better it can serve the American people."

Former congressional Chief of Staff Don Cravins Jr. is another supporter of the move.

"When senators are making decisions that affect the country and senators that represent states with large minority populations, I don't know that they can truly make wise decisions without having people of all backgrounds in those discussions," Cravins told the I-Team ahead of an Urban League panel discussion on the apparent dearth of diversity among U.S. Senate staffers.

Part of the problem is the fact that no one in Congress keeps track of how many minorities get hired to work for senators or representatives, as shown by in the I-Team's reporting, said Cravins, who now heads the Urban League's Washington Bureau.

"You're right, there's no accountability," Cravins said. "There's no fear."

The I-Team went digging in late 2016 for numbers on how many staffers in the local congressional offices identify as women, people of color and LGBTQ and came up with a scattered snapshot of who was working on the Hill at the time. It turns out the numbers don't exist in any formal or centralized capacity.

And even though Congress requires diversity employment tracking, everyone else, including the rest of the federal workforce, nobody is required to track those numbers within Congress -- and no one does.

The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies has undertaken a broader project to find data on how many minorities work in top legislative roles in the U.S. Senate, and found what its president, Spencer Overton, called "a huge disparity."

"Although people of color make up about 36 percent of the U.S. population," Overton said, "they only account for 7 percent of top Senate staff."

The Joint Center first published its findings in early 2015, and is now planning to take a look at staff demographics on the U.S. House side, too.

In addition to establishing an office to oversee diversity in Congress, there are also calls to institute the NFL's Rooney Rule in hiring for open positions on the Hill. The rule wouldn't force any office to hire a person of color, but it would require them to interview at least one minority for each for open job.

Sen. Schumer, the SBLSC, the Urban League, and the Joint Center all say it would be another important step.

"[The Rooney Rule] allows men and women of color to get in the pipeline to find out what they're missing, so they can go and find those skills," Cravins said. "So maybe the next job opening that becomes available, they can apply for that."

The Joint Center is also applauding new signs of progress with the hiring of minorities to top positions this month. In a press release, the Joint Center noted:

  • House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) hired Jonathan Burks as chief of staff
  • Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) hired Rey Benitez as communications director
  • Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) hired Steve Haro as chief of staff
  • Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) hired Clint Odom as legislative director
  • Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM) hired Virgillio Barerra as legislative director
  • Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC) hired Courtney Temple as legislative director

In December, Senator-elect Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) announced one of his staff's first hires was Director of External Relations and Community Outreach Yvette Lewis.

Still, Overton pointed to an urgency in continuing the push for more diverse hires in both chambers.

"People of color need to be at the table," he said. "This isn't just a situation where you can outsource representation or defer to others or wait for four years to pass."

Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produced by Ashley Brown and Rick Yarborough, with shooting and editing by Jeff Piper.

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