Congressional Staff Diversity
with Spencer Overton, President of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies
Feb 13, 2019
The 115th Congress is the most racially diverse group in history. Spencer Overton, President of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, discusses his organization’s efforts to ensure members of the U.S. Congress reflect the communities they serve.
Anderson: The 2018 midterm election saw historic gains in Congressional representative for women and people of color, especially in the new House of Representatives, which is now the most diverse in U.S. history. Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I´m Tetiana Anderson. While people of color make up 38% of the U.S. population, less than 14% of the top staff members in the U.S. House are people of color. Those numbers come from a report by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. Its president, Spencer Overton, is here to talk with me about diversity and how Congress is working to better reflect the faces of the American population. And, Spencer, thank you so much for being here.
Overton: Thank you.
Anderson: So, we just heard from your report that people of color are not represented at the same rate that they are in the U.S. population as they are in staff jobs in Congress.
Anderson: Why is this problematic?
Overton: This is problematic because we need Congress and the staff to reflect the United States as a whole. The nation is increasingly diverse, and yet on both the Senate side and the House side, the top staff is overwhelmingly white. We found that Americans are more likely to elect a person of color to Congress than people in Congress are to hire a top staffer of color. It´s also important because so much is at stake. We talk about the legislative agenda. We talk about a $4 trillion federal budget, 3 million federal employees. These are all overseen by top staffers in Congress. They make a difference.
Anderson: So, let´s take a step back for just a moment. How did we get to this place of under-representation? Why did that even start to be a problem?
Overton: Right. Well, we need to first understand in terms of what are we talking about in terms of top staff, right? So, each member of the House and the Senate, generally they have three top staffers -- a Chief of Staff, a Communications Director, and a Legislative Director. We found, for example, in the House of Representatives that almost three-quarters of the members did not have one person of color in any of those top positions, right? Very similar -- in fact, it´s worse -- in the Senate. And we found also in the House that a lot of these were very diverse districts. We found that there were over 100 districts that were from 33% of color all the way up to 93% people of color. They didn´t have one person of color in any of these three positions, right? So, part of how we get here is kind of a nepotism piece and who is in the mix and who do you know. Part of it is things like unpaid internships. Who is it they can afford to take an unpaid internship? And then those are the people who are in the pool for entry-level jobs and so on and so on in terms of going up the ladder. So, there are a variety of causes, but we´ve got to call this out and address the problem.
Anderson: And not only that, but people tend to help people who look like them. It´s not a bad thing, but that´s just often times how this works. But, of course, with the midterm elections in 2018, that leads us to a new Congress in 2019. That means that there are staff changes, there is hiring. What are some of the things your organization is doing to encourage diversity when it comes to this hiring?
Overton: Yeah, people are hiring, and there are over 300 top staff positions that are opening, and there are also a lot of feeder positions that are open. And the reason these feeder positions are important is because if the feeder positions aren´t diverse -- if the mid-level positions aren´t diverse -- if you don´t have a Latino Legislative Assistant, you´re not going to have a Legislative Director who is Latino in the future. So, we do have this moment of opportunity right now, which is important, but simply because we have these new members -- and as you know, this is the most diverse Congress ever is what they say -- just because of that does not necessarily mean, and just because let´s say the Democrats have taken over the house, doesn´t mean that things are going to be more diverse. We found that white Democratic members, they, on average, have districts that are 37% people of color, but only 8% are their top staff -- is people of color.
Anderson: So, are you talking to these legislators? Are you giving presentations in Congress? Is this how it´s working?
Overton: We´re certainly talking to members and we´re talking to -- there´s a Diversity Office on the House side, right? But, also, there´s the public education part. We are tracking. You can go to jointcenter.org, and we track everyone who has been hired so far by newly-elected members, and we can tell you your district and who your member is hiring and you can actually look. And, really, this is not just a think tank in terms of what we´re doing, this has really got to be the people. People calling their members and saying, "This is important to us."
Overton: Action. You acting and hiring. So, average folks making that call. This can´t be an inside- the-beltway diversity issue. Really, people back home have to say, "You know, we want you to have folks in your office that look like the district."
Anderson: Participation. Representation. Spencer Overton, thank you so much for being here.
Overton: Thank you so much. Appreciate it. And thank you for joining us, as well. For more great conversations with leaders in your community and across the nation, visit comcastnewsmakers.com. I´m Tetiana Anderson.