Incoming Democratic Nevada Rep. Steven Horsford has hired an African-American woman as his chief of staff, joining Georgia Democrat Lucy McBath and a few others on the 116th Congress to hire individuals of color in top staff positions in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The list includes Massachusetts Democrat Jahana Hayes, who hired a Black man as legislative director; California Democrat Katie Porter (Latina legislative director); New Mexico Democrat Xochiti Torres Small (Hispanic male chief of staff) and Virginia Democrat Elaine Luria, whose legislative director will be a Black man.
“In 2019, a record 35 diverse, talented and brilliant women will come to Congress, bringing us one step closer to a government that looks like the people it represents,” said California Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee, who will serve as the third co-chair of the Steering and Policy Committee, a body that votes on which members get to sit on certain committees.
As a co-chair, Lee reportedly will have the power to influence who will shape House Democrats’ agenda and investigations.
“I am excited and honored to serve with them all,” Lee said.
Still, while Congress will experience more diversity in its ranks, others remain concerned about the lack of Black and brown individuals in top staff positions.
Individuals of color represent 38 percent of the U.S. population but make up only 14 percent of top staff in the House of Representatives and 7 percent of top staff in the Senate, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a D.C.-based think tank.
In its vigilant reporting and promotion of diversity in top staff, the Joint Center launched an online resource to track the racial diversity of those hired as chiefs of staff, legislative directors and communications directors by new members of the House and Senate
“The newly-elected members could collectively hire over 300 top staffers,” Joint Center President Spencer Overton said in a news release. “Over the next month, these new members have the opportunity to transform the population of top staff so that it more closely reflects the diversity of our nation.
“We know that sunlight is the best disinfectant, and this new tool allows constituents back home to track in real time whether newly-elected members are bringing true change to Congress,” Overton said.
So far, data from the Joint Center reveals that newly-elected House members have hired 10 chiefs of staff who are people of color and 26 White chiefs of staff. The newly-elected senators have hired no top staff of color and three White chiefs of staff.
The newly-elected House members represent districts that are, on average, over one-third people of color. The newly-elected senators represent states that are, on average, almost 30 percent people of color.
“Now is the time to create a culture of diversity on Capitol Hill,” said Don Bell, director of the Joint Center’s Black Talent Initiative. “Building diverse coalitions for electoral victories is not enough. If people of color are important enough for a candidate to request a vote, they are important enough to be represented in congressional staff. Members must make diversity and inclusion the centerpiece of their policy-making team and agenda.”
On Friday, Dec. 14, Audra Jackson, vice president of the Congressional Black Associates, provided a statement to The Washington Informer noting that while the House has diversity on its agenda, now is the time to incorporate diverse and inclusive hiring practices for entry-level and senior-level positions on Capitol Hill.
“The CBA along with the staff associations of the Tri-Caucus have continuously called for congressional offices to hire individuals of color for top staff positions,” CBA officials said in the release. “The need for our voices to be heard at all levels in Congress will continue to be CBA’s priority. Therefore, we continuously commit ourselves to training and developing Black staffers on Capitol Hill, starting from the intern to the chief of staff.”
Recently, the CBA partnered with the Tri-Caucus Staff Associations to host a training for members where congressional staff learned from top staffers in the communications and legislative field on Capitol Hill.
CBA also hosted an intern training program to ensure interns are equipped with the knowledge and skills needed for success on the Hill.
“CBA will always fight for staffers of color to have a seat at the table and will continue to train our staffers to be adequately prepared to excel in these positions,” Jackson said.
The average salary of congressional staff reportedly is $50,971, based on data from political research firm LegiStorm. Entry-level positions such as legislative assistants are paid even less.
D.C. residents need to make at least $90,811 per year to live comfortably in the city, according to an analysis by personal finance site GoBankingRates.
Financial comfort is defined as spending 50 percent of annual income on necessities, 30 percent on discretionary items and saving 20 percent, according to CNBC.
Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), tweeted, “It is unjust for Congress to budget a living wage for ourselves, yet rely on unpaid interns and underpaid overworked staff just because Republicans want to make a statement about ‘fiscal responsibility.’”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi also has called on her fellow Democrats to “hire diverse staff whose advice and expertise will enrich our service to our country.” She also said House Democrats should formally adopt the “Rooney Rule,” an NFL policy that requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate for head coaching and senior management roles.
It’s exactly what Overton and the Joint Center have pushed relentlessly for.
“Congressional leaders have an opportunity to demonstrate the importance of staff diversity in the next Congress by nominating and assigning members to lead and serve on committees based on the composition of their staffs,” Overton said. “The next weeks and months are a critical time to act to promote staffing diversity, and rather than letting this opportunity pass, Congress should use this window to diversify their offices and do more to finally give all Americans a voice.”