Opinion

After Georgia, Democrats Must Diversify Top Senate Staff

Now that voters of color in Georgia have enabled Democrats to control the U.S. Senate by electing Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, Democrats must fix the lack of racial diversity among top Senate staff.

People of color are woefully underrepresented among top Senate staff. Even though people of color make up 40 percent of the U.S. population, they are only 11 percent of Senate personal office top staff (chief of staff, legislative director or communications director).

This problem is particularly acute among Democrats. For example, Black Americans account for about 20 percent of Democratic voters nationally and about 50 percent of Georgia’s Democratic voters. However, Black Americans accounted for only 5 percent of Democratic U.S. Senate top staff in 2020. Of the 20 Democratic full committee staff directors, only one is Black.

Top Senate staff draft laws, shape the $4.79 trillion federal budget, oversee federal agencies with over 3 million employees, help confirm federal judges and other agency leaders and hire, manage and dismiss Senate staff. Increasing diversity among top staff is essential to dismantling structural inequality in the U.S. Senate.

To fix this problem, senators should take three concrete steps right now.

First, all senators — Democrats and Republicans — should prioritize diversity in staff hiring, development, retention and promotion.

They should develop and implement written office diversity plans that include recruitment and hiring metrics, staff retention and development strategies, data collection and analysis procedures, a clear allocation of responsibility for diversity and unconscious bias evaluation and training for staff. They should use best practices from sources like Representative Democracy, and look for leads on diverse candidates through congressional staff associations of color.

Senators should prioritize diversity with all staff positions, as mid-level staff positions like legislative assistant and press secretary are often stepping stones to top spots like legislative director and communications director.

This is a great time to diversify, but the window will close soon. Right now new senators have entire offices to staff, and other senators have to fill new openings arising from Senate staffers going into the Biden administration.

Second, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Republican Leader Mitch McConnell should establish a Bipartisan Senate Diversity Staff Office. Thanks to the leadership of Schumer while he was in the minority, Senate Democrats established their own office, which has released diversity data annually since 2017 and helped Senate offices find diverse candidates. The lack of diversity is not just a Democratic problem, however, but an institutional problem.

Now that he is majority leader, Sen. Schumer should follow the lead of Nancy Pelosi when she became Speaker of the House and establish a Bipartisan Senate Diversity Staff Office. Like the House office, the Senate office should be led by professionals with diversity experience, and leadership from both parties should have input into staffing the office.

Third, senators need to stop perpetuating the vestiges of the past by excluding of people of color from Senate staff positions. For example, Senate staff often develop deep networks in the chamber and have an inside track to lead agencies because these positions are confirmed by the Senate. These agencies — like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Federal Communications Commission, and the Federal Trade Commission — make decisions that directly address the challenges faced by communities of color (which have only been magnified by the pandemic and structural racism). Unless addressed, the lack of diversity among Senate staff can translate into less diverse leadership at agencies. Senators should acknowledge this structural inequality, and support the nomination and confirmation of strong candidates of color even if they lack Senate staff experience.

To be sure, some senators do have people of color in positions like state director or constituent services director, and may consider them part of office leadership. But this argument does not justify the fact that there are so few people of color in top positions like chief of staff, legislative director, communications director and committee staff director. Honestly recognizing and addressing the Senate’s issues does not demean existing Senate staff of color — but can open new professional opportunities to them.

Thanks in part to voters of color in Georgia and across the nation, Democrats will control the U.S. Senate. Communities of color are not political pawns to be mobilized and discarded after an election. One key step that can help ensure our laws, budget and appointments better reflect the diversity of our nation is for the new Senate to fix the lack of top staff diversity in the chamber.

 

LaShonda Brenson, Ph.D., is the senior fellow for diversity and inclusion at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which is America’s Black Think Tank. Spencer Overton is the president of the Joint Center and a professor at George Washington University Law School.

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