By Joe Davidson
Friday, February 26, 2010; B03
As any good cook knows, each ingredient in a fine meal enhances its taste. Don't include one element, and the meal loses its flavor.
The same is true in making laws. If certain components aren't included in the congressional process, then legislation won't adequately reflect the American people.
And that gets to a beef a coalition of congressional staff members has with Congress: There are too few staff members of color who help write legislation and perform many other duties that allow the legislative branch to function.
The Congressional Hispanic Staff Association, the Congressional Black Associates, the Congressional Asian Pacific American Staff Association and the Congressional Muslim Staffers Association confronted that issue Thursday with what they billed as the first "State of Diversity on the Hill Address."
It really was a panel discussion, rather than anything akin to a major address, as the title of the event implied. And the main attraction wasn't a speaker, but a report issued by the Hispanic organization.
"Unrepresented: A Blueprint for Solving the Diversity Crisis on Capitol Hill" focuses on the paucity of Latino staff members, but similar reports undoubtedly could be done for the other associations. One important point the report makes at the beginning is that lack of diversity is more than a Latino problem. It affects the way the government does business.
"There is a crisis afflicting Capitol Hill," the report says. "While policy decisions affecting all of America are debated in the halls of Congress, Latinos are almost completely absent in top-level staff positions. Thus, on issues like education, the economy, health care, and decisions of war and peace, Members of Congress are largely without the perspective of a community" that is a major and growing segment of the American people.
The lack of Latinos on the Hill is striking.
In the Senate, there is one Latino chief of staff and one committee staff director. These are key behind-the-scenes operatives who make their elected bosses look good. But more than that, these top staff members strongly influence the direction of Senate hearings, the content of legislation and the very words senators speak. There are no Hispanic deputy chiefs of staff or legislative directors in the Senate, people who also play critical roles in Congress.
"Unfortunately, the Latino community is not currently represented in a meaningful way among Congressional staff," the report says.
On the House side, the numbers at first don't seem quite as stark, but that's only because there are so many more people serving the greater number of representatives. You need not go too deep into the data, however, to learn that the 12 Latino House chiefs of staff are a mere 2.7 percent of the 440 positions, according to association extrapolations of 2009 House Employment Survey data.
At 9 percent, Latinos were best represented in the scheduler position in House offices, but as the report notes, "These positions are generally not considered to be instrumental to policy formulation, nor are they generally considered by conventional wisdom to be positions from which to advance to more senior-level positions."
One thing giving hope to diversity advocates is the rate at which ambitious staff members leave jobs working for sometimes temperamental elected officials, often to find a job with another one. "In fact, the high staff turnover and potential for relatively quick advancement on the Hill is one of the reasons" the Hispanic association said it is optimistic that the diversity problem can be tackled over the next decade.
The association urged congressional leaders to make stronger efforts to increase diversity by creating a House and a Senate Republican Office for Diversity, which Senate Democrats have and the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is considering. Another recommendation calls for including ethnicity data in future Senate and House employment surveys, information the report says "would be useful in highlighting the progress made in increasing diversity."
And the association wants Congress to take a page from the National Football League's playbook, by adopting something similar to the NFL's Rooney Rule, which says teams must interview at least one person of color for head coaching and top front-office positions.
The association doesn't put all the onus on congressional leaders. During the past years, it said, it has distributed job lists and openings, connected Latinos with offices that are hiring, mentored potential staffers and targeted new members of Congress, who must hire entire office staffs.
"Unfortunately," the report says, "these efforts have not been enough.
A link to the report can be found with this column at www.washingtonpost.com/fedpage.