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Trickle-down representation: Will the most diverse Congress make Capitol Hill more diverse?

Here's where the 2018 midterm election saw historic gains on both state and national levels. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

It’s well established that when it comes to diversity, Congress has not accurately represented the United States at large. The share of female, African American, Latino and Asian lawmakers is significantly lower than in the American population.

The new class of Democrats, with the first Muslim and Native American women ever elected to Congress, is changing the makeup of Capitol Hill. Just look at this graph from D.C.-based Republican lobbyist Bruce Mehlman:

In January, when the 116th Congress convenes, there will be as many women, of all races, as there are white men in the House Democratic caucus, according to Mehlman’s calculations.

But what the focus on the historically disproportionate number of white men in political power misses is the trickle-down effect it has on hiring staff.

Building off its study released in September that found that of the 1,174 top House staffers on the Hill, 1,103 are white, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies is out Thursday morning with a deeper dive into state delegations and the racial makeup of members' staff.

Congress does not keep demographic data on its staff, so this study was based on publicly available data as of June 1. It may not account for changes in staff since last summer, though the center has asked members to keep them apprised of such changes.

In an earlier study, the think tank found dozens of House members who represent districts with more than 33 percent people of color who had zero top staffers of color. The six worst offenders were Democrats, including Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.).

Though the new House will look more diverse than it does now (and this House looked more diverse than the one before that), it doesn’t necessarily mean their hiring will reflect that. Barragán, Vargas and Hastings are all people of color.

“We can’t assume because a member is a person of color that diversity will necessarily flow from that,” said Joint Center President Spencer Overton. “We all have to make a commitment to this issue. Voters are more likely to elect a person of color than a member of Congress is to hire a person of color.”

To push that message, the think tank focused on six states to analyze more fully in their latest report.

For example, in Maryland, where nearly half the state population is people of color, less than 25 percent of the top staff in the congressional delegation is, and Maryland’s two Democratic senators, Benjamin L. Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, have none, according to the new data. The same is true in Pennsylvania, where the percentage of people of color is lower at 23, but the percentage of top staff of color is, too, at 10. And Pennsylvania’s two senators, Robert P. Casey Jr. (D) and Patrick J. Toomey (R), have no top staff of color.

Why does it matter? For the same reason many are celebrating the increase in diversity among lawmakers — people of different backgrounds bring a varied perspective to the nation’s problems.

More women were elected in this year's election than any point in U.S. history. But how close is Congress to parity? (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Mikayla Whitmore/The Washington Post)

Some congressional offices have taken issue with the Joint Center’s methodologically of only counting chiefs of staff, legislative directors and communications directors among “top staff," arguing its too limited a view. Van Hollen’s office, for example, pointed to a survey the Senate Democrats did in June of all staff that showed 49 percent of his office is nonwhite. That same survey showed Cardin with 50 percent nonwhite and Casey with 23 percent.

But, Overton has argued that the think tank chose those leadership positions as benchmarks because they are the most high-profile and influential in a congressional office.

Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), said last week she wanted to establish a diversity office to recruit staff from different backgrounds.

“Embracing the value of diversity within our offices, especially in senior positions, will strengthen our ability to represent our constituents and craft solutions that benefit all Americans,” Pelosi wrote in a letter to members. She also told them she hoped to formalize the “Rooney Rule,” a guideline borrowed from the NFL requiring members to interview at least one person of color for every top position that is open in their office.

Overton said it’s an encouraging start and is hopeful that at this moment when people are focused on the most diverse Congress ever, they will also demand the same of the people who work behind the scenes on crafting legislation and policy strategy.

“We have got this great moment, a great opportunity to change the trajectory of this Congress in terms of staff diversity. Right now, we’ve got dozens of new members of Congress and the new Democratic chairs will hire hundreds of new staffers over the next few months,” he said. “This is not a notion of gradual change. We have a window where we can fundamentally change the complexion of mid-level and top-level staff if this is a priority and if members take advantage of this opportunity."