It's White At the Top

The American workplace is increasingly diverse. But one citadel seems to have remained frozen in time: the ranks of top staffers in the United States Congress.

As we approach the 21st century, all but one of the 74 staff directors of standing committees -- the highest-ranking and most influential Republican and Democratic staffers on the Hill -- are white, according to data gleaned from a survey by National Journal. The lone minority, Patricia Zell, a longtime Senate Indian Affairs Committee aide and now Democratic staff director, is of Navajo ancestry. There are no African American, Asian American or Hispanic staff directors. For that matter, among those 74 top GOP and Democratic committee aides, not even 20 percent are women.

Congress as a whole is more diverse than the various committees' top staffers. It has 39 African American members (none of them in the Senate, however), 19 Hispanic members (again none in the Senate), seven Asian or Pacific Island members and one Native American member.

So, why the low numbers at the staff director level? Repeated calls to the House and Senate GOP leadership went unreturned. Democrats said they are big on diversity, but it's not so easy to achieve. Even at lower staff levels, "the best we can do is lead by example," said Laura Nichols, spokeswoman for House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt (Mo.). She said there are nine minority aides out of 50 or so in Gephardt's office. At the top levels, "we can't tell the high-ranking committee chairmen who to hire."

Rep. Charles B. Rangel (N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, said some members try "desperately" to hire more minority staffers, but too many members have all-white staffs. As those staffers move up over the years, they are the ones who end up in the top jobs, said Rangel, and that works against the promotions of blacks into the top spots.

"There's a plexiglass ceiling here," said one African American House staffer who asked not to be identified. "They let you look through it, but they don't let you push through it."

There seemed to be a trend to hire and promote more African Americans in the 1980s. "I'm surprised the numbers aren't better," said Washington lawyer Jeffrey D. Robinson, who was staff director for a Senate Judiciary subcommittee in 1987 and 1988. "I would have thought, based on how things were going when I worked there, that there would be more."

The first African American to hold a staff director position was the late Ronald H. Brown, who was briefly the top Democratic staffer on the Judiciary Committee in 1980. Brown, who eventually became commerce secretary, was appointed staff director by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). Ralph Everett followed closely, becoming the Democratic staff director of the Senate Commerce Committee in 1983. He was appointed by Sen. Ernest F. "Fritz" Hollings (D-S.C.) and is now in private law practice.

But Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) wasn't surprised by National Journal's numbers. "It's a sign of the times -- the old times. We have a seniority system still, even with the staff."

Becerra said that when members of Congress appoint staff directors, they tend to hire people whom they know and who have proved themselves. "It may not be an intentional exclusion, but by not expanding our circle, it's a de facto exclusion. There are not enough being given the opportunity."

In addition, skilled aides -- of all races -- often are lured away from the Hill to lobbying and other jobs. "They are gobbled up by the private sector because we don't pay that much," Becerra said.

Sen. Reid Sizes Up Yahoo

Presidential candidates in both parties are pandering shamelessly to Silicon Valley executives, beating a path to the land of big contributors. But it's not just the candidates who want to keep in touch. Sen. Harry Reid (Nev.), who heads the Senate Democratic Caucus, was out there recently for a temperature-taking tour.

In a report to his colleagues afterward, Reid said he made the trip "to convey . . . that we are interested in their business, including any concerns relating to the federal government."

He was "stunned by the futuristic view of the scientists" at Hewlett-Packard, Reid said, and equally impressed by the folks at Sun Microsystems, eBay, WebTV and Novell. But it was the visit to Yahoo, specifically to the office of 30-year-old co-founder Jerry Yang, that really shocked him. "It is the very same as hundreds of other employees at YAHOO -- a small cubicle," Reid marveled.

So, will this small-office trend catch on in the Senate? a staffer wanted to know.

Don't hold your breath.

Tips and comments for Al Kamen's column are welcomed at: In the Loop, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or by e-mail at Loop@washpost.com. Please include home and work phone numbers.