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House Democrats set to adopt the ‘Rooney Rule’ in push to diversify staffs

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) speaks June 9 during her weekly news conference. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

House Democrats plan to adopt a National Football League hiring policy and compile a new database of minority job applicants as part of a push to diversity the staffing ranks on Capitol Hill.

Since last year’s elections, Democratic congressional leaders have been facing pressure from minority staffers, lawmakers and organizations for failing to ensure that a party that draws outsize support from Asian, black, Latino and gay voters also employs such people on Capitol Hill.

In the House, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her leadership team are set to announce plans on Wednesday to launch the House Democratic Diversity Initiative, a project that will include a full-time staffer responsible for placing minorities in more staff jobs across the caucus.

Shortly after taking office in January, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) made similar changes designed to help Democratic senators identify and hire more minority applicants.

The new House Democratic diversity director, who has not yet been hired, will oversee a database of potential applicants to fill policy and communications jobs that will draw names with insights from outside groups, including Asian, black and Latino staffing organizations, according to Pelosi’s office.

White men are a minority in the House Democratic caucus, with Asian, black Latino, women and openly gay members outnumbering them, a milestone that occurred over the past decade. The new diversity push for staffing “will help our Members build diverse staffs and strengthen our work on behalf of Americans of all backgrounds and perspectives,” Pelosi said in a statement announcing the plans, the details of which were shared first with The Washington Post.

Drew Hammill, Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff and top spokesman, noted that “Leader Pelosi’s office is, without rival, the most diverse office on Capitol Hill. Leader Pelosi has always believed in the importance of leading by example.”

Her senior staff includes an Arab American chief of staff, Nadeam Elshami; two deputy chiefs of staff who are gay and female, respectively; a national security adviser, communications director and press secretary who are all black women; and a Latino member services director, according to Hammill. Overall, Pelosi employs 55 people in her leadership and district offices, more than half of whom are women (31). Forty-four percent of her combined staffs (24) are minorities, he said.

Among House Republicans, Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) has no formal policy for his office or his conference requiring the recruitment or hiring of minorities, according to aides. Earlier this year he promoted his longtime aide, Jonathan Burks, to be his chief of staff. There are no diversity hiring requirements among Senate Republicans.

Pelosi and her team tried codifying House-wide diversity rules back in 2010, but they lost the majority and the funding that might come with such changes, aides said. Now, they plan to implement the plans for the caucus amid pressure from outside groups. A series of op-eds and widely circulated social media posts by progressive activists and columnists late last year began drawing attention to the dearth of minority or gay senior staffers.

The new diversity director will work with Rep. Robert A. Brady (Pa.), the top Democrat on the House Administration Committee, who will oversee a new Member Advisory Council that will draw members from the congressional Asian Pacific American, black, Hispanic, LGBT, women’s progressive and moderate caucuses, according to Hammill.

The new council will be tasked with setting diversity hiring goals and provide guidance on how offices will implement the “Rooney Rule,” named for Dan Rooney, the late owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who persuaded the NFL to adopt a policy that requires teams to interview minorities for any head coaching or senior football operations positions. Use of the rule does not necessarily result in hiring, but it compels the league to seek out, promote and retain minority talent.

It’s not yet clear whether Democrats plan to apply the rule just to senior hires or all job openings.

In January, Schumer adopted the rule for his own office after meetings with minority staffing groups and minority staffers. He also encouraged, but did not require, that other Democratic senators adopt the policy.

Congressional offices are not required to publicly report the demographics of staffers, but groups such as the Congressional Hispanic Staff Association and the Congressional Black Associates have tried in past years to compile reports on the disparities. In a 2010 report, Latinos represented just 6 percent of the congressional workforce. The numbers haven’t changed much since then.

Francisco Bencosme, a staffer with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who also leads the Congressional Hispanic Staff Association, said that his group has been working with Pelosi and other Democratic leaders to make changes to staffing decisions.

“We support the announcement,” Bencosme said in a statement, adding later, “We believe this initiative can only succeed through a concerted strategy that looks at data collection, transparency, pipeline, retention and outreach holistically.”