WASHINGTON — Members of Congress are now more racially and ethnically diverse than ever before. The people who work for those politicians are still overwhelmingly white.
A new staff-led organization on the Hill plans to change that. The Congressional Progressive Staff Association, which went public Monday morning, is recruiting current Hill staffers to strengthen progressive efforts on the Hill and, two organizers told BuzzFeed News, aiming to bring in more candidates from underrepresented backgrounds.
“It is certainly no secret that to work in Congress right now in some ways either requires or nearly requires a level of privilege in our society that makes it prohibitive for congressional staff to be perfectly representative of the constituents who the members of Congress represent,” Jacob Wilson, one of the association’s organizers, said in a recent interview with BuzzFeed News “and that's absolutely something that we're trying to address.”
“It's a very simple idea,” Wilson, who works as the press secretary for Rep. Andy Levin of Michigan, added. “People should be represented by people like them, who understand them, who have lived experiences similar to them, and also are championing ideas that really are for people of color, that are lifting up women, that are lifting up the struggle for LGBTQ rights.”
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Over the last decade, Congress has been steadily diversifying. Today, according to the Pew Research Center, 124 lawmakers identify as Black, Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander, or Native American, representing about 23% of current voting members. That’s a record — one that’s been set and broken back-to-back by the last six Congresses.
Congressional staff, on the other hand, remains largely white: A 2019 survey found that 70% of House staff was white, and a new report found that just 11% of top staffers in Senate offices in the current Congress are people of color.
One way the newly formed staff association can change that, Wilson said, is to create a more publicly accessible way for prospective candidates to connect with current staff members and break through the “very insular hiring culture” of Capitol Hill. The association plans to hold events, connect with the labor movement and advocacy groups, and act as an initial connection for people from various racial and ethnic backgrounds looking to work on the Hill.
But it’s not just the insular culture that keeps many people away from Congressional staff jobs: As a Business Insider report from last week outlined, Hill staff salaries are often laughably low, and many workers on the Hill work second jobs in order to pay the rent.
It was a desire for some transparency — and a hope for some guidance about what to ask for and expect when taking a full-time job on the Hill — that led Courtney Laudick, a senior legislative assistant in Levin’s office, to seek out a community of workers on the Hill.
She began talking with a few other staffers and soon learned Wilson, her colleague, was doing the same, and they joined forces. Today, the association has about a dozen staffers who have founded the organization, which required official approval from the House Administration Committee, and they hope to attract not only many other staffers from other progressive offices, but also workers across the Hill interested in progressive values.
Though they plan to let the group’s priorities be determined democratically as more members join, Laudick said, pay transparency will hopefully be part of their efforts.
“If you don't have a peer network or you didn't, you know, network with someone before coming to the Hill, you might be kind of like, ‘Wait, is everyone getting paid the same?’ You know, ‘Is this how it is, or am I just getting paid a lot lower?’ and so I think it's helpful to sort of have that opportunity to connect with folks,” she said.
Laudick and Wilson also said they believe the organization can strengthen ties among current Hill staffers, who, especially during the pandemic, can be splintered, even when working on similar legislation or preparing for the same hearings.
“Anybody on the legislative side of things on Capitol Hill has had a moment where there's a vote on the floor and something has changed at the last minute — be it leadership's recommendation on the vote or a key member of Congress's decision — and all of a sudden things are just up in the air. What do you do?” Wilson said. “And at times it can feel as if there is no structure in place to answer those last-minute type of decisions and respond to them appropriately.”
The association hopes to ensure that progressive staff members are connected by issue area and have ways to communicate with one another, so that, Wilson said, “the progressive ideas and values are not being lost in the procedural tumult of Congress.”