Opinion Diversity among top Senate staffers is abysmal. This must change.
Paul N.D. Thornell is a principal at Mehlman Consulting and board chair of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
This year’s Super Bowl should shine a bright spotlight on the issue of diversity. Yes, two Black quarterbacks have led their teams to the championship game, a sign of progress. But the league continues to struggle with its dismal record of hiring Black head coaches.
The problem goes far beyond football. Lack of diversity in leadership roles is common in workplaces across the country, including, arguably, one of the most important locations: the U.S. Senate.
Decades ago, I had the privilege of working in two different offices in the Senate. There, I saw up close a near complete absence of people in senior staff roles who looked like me.
Let’s look at some numbers: Of the 100 U.S. senators, 88 are White, each with a chief of staff to lead their teams of 50 to 70 public servants. In this “world’s most deliberative body,” there is only one Black chief of staff, four Black legislative directors and one Black communications director.
On the Senate committees where legislation takes shape, there are zero Black people in top committee staff director positions. Following the recent midterm elections, newly elected senators are continuing this poor trend, with only 5.9 percent of their top staff positions (chief of staff, legislative director, communications director) held by people of color.
These staffers are crucial to the Senate’s work. Chiefs of staff hire and manage each office’s workers, decide their senators’ schedules, and serve as the primary interface between the staffs and their bosses. Legislative directors determine their senators’ issue priorities, recommend how they vote, serve as their principal policy ambassadors to other offices and outside interests, draft legislation and prepare for floor debates. Staff directors run committees for the chairs and schedule proceedings and votes on legislation, move nominees through the confirmation process, help choose questions to ask witnesses, and negotiate deals on legislation as they move from the committee to the Senate floor.
Given these roles, it should be abundantly clear that the lived experiences of senators’ top staff inform actions on behalf of constituents and the broader nation. This dynamic is no different from any other workplace, but the stakes are much higher.
Being “in the room” matters. The questions that senators ask at hearings often come from the last staffers to whisper in their ears. Senators also benefit from hearing alternative viewpoints during meetings. A simple question like “have you thought of it this way?” can change policy dramatically.
This is particularly important for issues that impact Black Americans disproportionately, such as policing reform and voting rights. Is there value in having some top Black Senate staff “at the table” to help develop measures based on their personal insights, experiences or those of family and communities? Yes. The same could be said of virtually any other federal policy issue, from health care to education to housing to transportation issues. But with the makeup of top Senate staff, that perspective is missing.
Are well-intentioned White people incapable of acting on behalf of minorities to make good policy on these issues? No, but that is not the point. The Senate should have a diverse range of perspectives and racial and ethnic backgrounds to enhance the policymaking process. The absence of diversity among top U.S. staffers hinders that vision.
This disheartening reality has gone largely unnoticed by the broader public and media, except for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies’ campaign to focus attention on this glaring racial imbalance. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has taken steps to address the problem by launching an annual survey of Senate Democratic offices, which sheds light on the dismal statistics.
More scrutiny to senators’ hiring practices might reveal a greater understanding of why this problem is so persistent. Are the talent pipelines sufficiently diverse? Do closed networks present roadblocks for Black professionals? Do less experienced White candidates receive “lucky” breaks that more qualified Blacks don’t? If interviewers in Senate offices are all White, does that influence their hires? Are Black people not viewed by U.S. senators as being “safe” candidates for these high-profile roles?
These are unsettling questions. After Sunday’s game, NFL teams will look at their weaknesses and ask themselves what they can do better, including more diverse hiring. The Senate would do well to do the same.
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