Survey Says: Capitol Hill’s Staff Is Lily White

We asked some staffers of color what that means for public policy, and why it's such an intransigent problem.

By Shani O. Hilton Jun 24, 2011

The 2011 edition of the National Journal survey of "Hill people"–that is, high-level staffers to members of Congress–revealed something we probably already knew: Capitol Hill is really white and really male. Now, the question among some is how that indisputable fact may impact policies for women and people of color.

According to the survey, which occurs every three years, fully 93 percent of top staffers on the Hill are white. Nearly 70 percent are male. While Democrats have a slightly more equitable gender ratio–62 percent male, 38 percent female–their staff is still 91 percent white.

One black staffer, who asked to remain nameless, said the staff reflects the members of Congress. "[The whiteness] is noticeable when you go in the Gallery and the House floor; there’s not much diversity in the chamber. There’s even a stark difference between the Senate and the House," the staffer added. "And there’s not that much color in the House."

It’s true. Fewer than 10 percent of members of Congress are black, about five percent are Latino, and about 2 percent are Asian.

These disparities have major policy implications, says Maya Rockeymoore, president of Global Policy Solutions, and a former Hill staffer to New York Democrat Charles Rangel and the House Ways and Means Committee.

"Hill staff–particularly those who serve with committees–are the gatekeepers to a very important part of the democratic process," Rockeymoore says. She says that all-white staffers often lead to "mainstream" experts being called to testify at hearings, and in this case, "mainstream" translates into "white" experts speaking on issues that disproportionately affect people of color, women, and the poor.

When policy is being crafted post-hearing, the lack of diversity on staff "creates sub-optimal policies that create sub-optimal results for people of color," Rockeymoore says, which affect everything from education to job creation. "What you get is a biased policy-making process that ends up undermining people of color."

But Ami Sanchez, a lawyer who serves as counsel to the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, says that being a person of color or woman isn’t a prerequisite for making good policy on behalf of those communities. There are "very smart, capable people–even if they’re not people of color–who can make that case and craft that policy," that will benefit women and people of color.

Still, Sanchez admits, "You can’t not be aware if you’re the only minority in the room." And there are times when she’s the only person in the room to bring up race, too. "There’s always a little bit of insight that we can provide as staffers who are also minorities and women."

Another black staffer who works for a Republican member says the lack of diversity means that legislation crucial to people of color often gets "swept into" huge omnibus bills, because it lacks the support to stand alone. That leaves the measures particularly vulnerable to getting quietly scrapped–or, no one will notice good policy for people of color that does make it into law.  

Sanchez diagnoses the lack of diversity on the Hill as a multi-part problem. First, she says, there’s a high bar to entry. Most interns don’t get paid, which limits the pool of those who can access Hill internships.

"I would have to leave every day to make it to my job that paid, so I could pay my rent," she says of her intern days on the Hill. "It’s a huge burden, and those decisions are very real."

Second, people of color who don’t have a family history of higher education often lack the networks and professional connections you need to get opportunities in Washington. "Among folks who have parents who went to college, and had that kind of white-collar professional experience–there’s a real awareness and understanding of what it takes to get on the Hill," Sanchez says

"Access," says the black staffer for the Republican member. "A lot of the world is not what you know, but who you know. We have to figure out a way to increase our access." He adds that diversifying networks is the best way to do that. "That means diversifying yourself politically as well."

Even once on the Hill, says another black staffer, the network hurdles remain. "It might not be that people are closed off to you–it might be that you haven’t entered into their circles yet. We tend to promote those we socialize with and their friends and their neighbors. It’s just unfortunate that all too often we network with people within our class or our race."

"There needs to be a concerted effort from minorities and women to groom someone who looks like us," Sanchez says. "My part would be looking at the minority women around me and seeing if there’s someone who can take my place."

The Republican staffer says that people of color often leave for the private sector before they can reach the most senior staffer positions, some of which take 5-10 years of service to one politician. Plus, he says, "It may take a little bit longer for a black staffer working for a white politician to develop that relationship, and I believe we have to work twice as hard to be considered equal." 

In the meantime, toiling for $40,000 salary when more lucrative jobs are out there is challenging. "You start to look at what I’m getting paid versus what I could be getting paid," and often discover that private firms may be willing to double or triple that salary.

To grow the numbers, Sanchez says effort is required by candidates, but also the people doing the hiring. "Even when they’re reviewing candidates, if they can look at their final pool and it’s three white males, they need do some recruiting. There’s no shortage of qualified or capable minority candidates."