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The next Congress will be one of the most diverse ever. Now critics are demanding more diversity on staff

Key Points
  • While people of color represent 38 percent of the U.S. population, they make up only 14 percent of top staff in the House of Representatives and 7 percent of top staff in the Senate.
  • One of the barriers to diversity in staff hiring is the low salaries as well as the prevalence of unpaid internships.
  • House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called on her fellow Democrats to "hire diverse staff whose advice and expertise will enrich our service to our country."
Ayanna Pressley
Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Although the 116th Congress will be one of the most racially diverse ever, hurdles still remain when it comes to recruiting a diverse staff who will help shape legislation going forward.

The incoming freshman class of 110 lawmakers boasts 23 people of color and 42 women, including the first two Muslim-American and first two Native American congresswomen ever. New members will need to hire staff to work both in the Capitol and their districts, who will research policy issues, craft legislation and interact with constituents.

While people of color represent 38 percent of the U.S. population, they make up only 14 percent of top staff in the House of Representatives, according to a report published in September by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. An earlier study from 2015 found people of color made up only 7 percent of top staff in the Senate. Top staff is defined as chiefs of staff, legislative directors, policy directors and communications directors.

The Joint Center released a letter on Monday signed by over 60 civil rights organizations urging members of Congress to "prioritize diversity in your hiring, particularly among your personal office top staff and key midlevel staff."

"Ensuring diversity among your staff will enhance the deliberation, innovation, legitimacy, and outcomes of your office and of the chamber as a whole," the letter read.

Congress itself does not report demographic data on its staff, with the exception of Senate Democrats, who began publishing the data in 2017 as part of a new diversity initiative. On average, 34 percent of Senate Democrats' total staff identified as a person of color in 2018.

"Top staff have the power to shape the future of our nation," said Spencer Overton, president of the Joint Center. "Having staffers who understand the lived experience [of people of color] is incredibly important."

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in a letter released after the midterm elections, called on her fellow Democrats to "take this opportunity 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.

One of the barriers to diversity in staff hiring is the low salaries as well as the prevalence of unpaid internships, which are often seen as a first step to a full-time role.

The average salary of congressional staff is $50,971, based on data from political research firm LegiStorm. Entry-level roles, such as legislative assistants, earn even less. Washington 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.

Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., tweeted on Monday, "It is unjust for Congress to budget a living wage for ourselves, yet rely on unpaid interns & underpaid overworked staff just bc Republicans want to make a statement about 'fiscal responsibility.'"

Earlier this year, the House and Senate approved a combined $14 million in funding to pay interns, which are typically unpaid positions. Ocasio-Cortez has also pledged to pay her office's interns $15 an hour.

Several organizations provide financial assistance to people of color working in Congress.

"We do have communities who are struggling," said Madalene Mielke, President and CEO of the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies, which offers paid internships and fellowships with members of Congress. Providing financial assistance is critical "if we want to make sure that we are giving all of our ethnic groups within the [Asian American and Pacific Islander] community an opportunity to pursue their interest in public service," she said.

While the growing diversity of members of Congress is important, it's "not the complete solution" to increasing staff diversity, Overton said. "People of color live outside of the districts of members of color," so diverse hiring practices need to be implemented across the board.

The current transition period is "an opportunity to change the trajectory of this issue," said Overton.

Incoming House member Ayanna Pressley, a Democrat, received national recognition after being the first black woman elected to represent Massachusetts in Congress. She will represent the state's only majority-minority congressional district.

"A focus on equity and building a diverse and inclusive staff will equip us to best serve constituents back home in the 7th [district]," Pressley's incoming Chief of Staff Sarah Groh told CNBC in an email.

"We believe it's time to make jobs on the Hill more accessible," Groh said. "We're committed to building a bench of seasoned staffers and future elected officials from every walk of life."