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Key to Public Trust: A Congress that Looks Like America

By Laura Maristany / 2017 July 12th

Let me tell you a quick story.

As a young political science major at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez, I always dreamed about working in the policy space. While my great grandparents on both sides were involved in politics in Cuba, no one in my family had pursued a career in U.S. politics until me. Needless to say, I didn’t have a robust network of well-connected people who could help me get my foot in the door. So in 2005, when my mother heard about a paid congressional internship program, she immediately encouraged me to apply. Fortunately, I was accepted into the program and given the opportunity to work in the office of the Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico – one of the busiest offices in the House of Representatives. This experience offered me a once in a lifetime opportunity to learn how Congress functions from the inside and build a network of peers and mentors, which eventually led me to a full time job on Capitol Hill.

In “this town” it is difficult to climb the Washington D.C. career ladder without having done your time on Capitol Hill. My paid internship opportunity and subsequent experience working in Congress is a staple of my resume that continues to open doors for me. But while internships continue to be a reliable path towards working for Congress, many are unpaid jobs – and there are very few young people with the means or ability to move to Washington, D.C. for a semester or summer to work for free. This is an especially acute problem for young people from low income and minority communities.

The result? A Congressional staff that currently does not represent the diversity of our nation.

At the Democracy Fund, we believe that healthy democracy demands vibrant public discussion and participation in our nation’s civc life. Robust public participation signals that people believe their voice and the institutions of our democracy matter. So we support programs and projects aiming to put people back at the center of our democracy in ways that give them the visceral experience of feeling heard and included.

Because it is the institution tasked with elevating the voice of all Americans to the national stage, Congress must make an effort to incorporate all the communities it serves. To truly represent the diverse people of this great nation, Congress should be committed to hiring the diverse people of this great nation.

It’s Time for Congress to Take a Long, Hard Look in the Mirror

In 2015, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies (Joint Center) took the first steps to quantify the lack of diversity in Congressional staff through a study focusing on top staff leadership in the U.S. Senate. The results confirmed what is visible to anyone visiting their Member of Congress; minorities are grossly underrepresented in the institution tasked with representing all of us.

The Joint Center report found that of 336 top Senate staffers (Chiefs of Staff, Legislative Directors, Communications Directors, and Staff Directors), only 24 staffers were people of color – 12 Asian Americans, 7 Latinos, 3 African Americans, and 2 Native Americans.

The Joint Center’s chart shows the disconnect between what our country looks like in comparison to the top leadership in U.S. Senate offices.

Importantly, this is a problem for both Democrats and Republicans. For example, although African Americans account for 22% of Democratic voters, they account for less than 1% of Democratic top staff. Of the 6 Black top staffers in the U.S. Senate, only two are Democrats (the other four are Republicans).

As you digest these numbers, keep in mind that, aside from its duty to work with the House of Representatives on legislation, the U.S. Senate has the final word on who sits on our Supreme Court and on who leads the agencies in charge of implementing our national policy. Therefore, lack of diversity in Congressional staff has long lasting ripple effects throughout our nation’s institutions, and pretty much every facet of our lives. (The Joint Center plans to release similar information related to the House side in 2017.)

To correct the imbalance found by the Joint Center and to ensure Members of Congress are responding to the communities they represent, seeking out and hiring more diverse staff is more crucial than ever.

The Path Forward: Congressional Staff That Looks Like America

Regardless of your views on size and scope, when it comes to government, we as citizens long for institutions that carry out the will of the people, for policies that help our communities thrive, and for systems that improve our daily lives. As the representative institution in our system of government, Congress is in a unique position to elevate our voices, but to do that, it must continue to listen to us – all of us.

A Congress that looks like the people it represents is a crucial part of the strategy to rebuild public trust. Understanding that diversity is key to healthy organizations and institutions, Democracy Fund plans to make significant investments to organizations uniquely positioned to tackle these challenges and, hopefully contribute to breaking this vicious cycle.

Two of these organizations – the Joint Center and the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund – are already leaders in this space and, with support from the Democracy Fund, will be able to scale their programs to ensure Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle prioritize diversity in their teams. New funding will allow these organizations to expand programs that help Congress recruit, train, and place qualified candidates for positions in congressional offices that better reflect the demographics of the constituencies they represent. They will also work to modernize congressional hiring practices, collaborate with existing diversity efforts to foster more relationships across the aisle, and promote professional development resources that help congressional staffers learn new skills, deepen their understanding of issues, and succeed in their careers.

Ultimately, we believe these programs can begin to move the needle towards a more representative Congress and help Members of Congress become more responsive to the communities they represent.

To learn more about these projects or to get involved, please email us at info@democracyfund.org.

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