In July, the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile just a day apart were a watershed moment in the community of black Capitol Hill staffers, including me. Despite the horror of what Americans saw on recorded video and live-streamed on Facebook, Congress did nothing. The indifference of members I otherwise respected disturbed me. Black staff in both houses and on both sides of the aisle felt powerless in their own offices. I know from conversations I had in the ensuing days that I wasn’t the only one who felt we couldn’t raise the issue of race and its continuing effect on our society. If we had no real voice with the lawmakers we worked for, day in and day out, what did that say about our ability to effect meaningful change in communities of color across the country?
It says there still aren’t enough black staffers in positions of influence on the Hill, particularly in the Senate. Per a recent report by the Senate Black Legislative Staff Caucus, only 4.9 percent of Washington-based staff members are African American. Through decades of inaction, the world’s most deliberative body has perpetuated an undemocratic lack of diversity.
Coverage of the report’s release drew attention in the Senate’s halls, and in meetings with senior Senate aides, as then-president of the Senate Black Legislative Staff Caucus, I was repeatedly assured of members’ commitment, going forward, to diversity. We’ll see. If they’re serious, there’s a solution ready for them to implement right now: Congress can and should adopt its own version of the National Football League’s “Rooney Rule.”
Named after Dan Rooney, the former Pittsburgh Steelers chairman who died earlier this month, the rule requires NFL teams to interview (though not necessarily to hire) at least one minority candidate for each vacant head coaching and general manager position. Last year, ESPN’s the Undefeated reported that “In the 12 seasons before the rule was instituted, the NFL had only six nonwhite head coaches. In 12 seasons under the rule, the league has added 14 head coaches of color.” American University law professor Jeremi Duru — author of “Advancing the Ball: Race, Reformation, and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL” — explained, “the whole idea of it is to prompt kind of a culture change” and further the idea that “in order to succeed and be competitive, you have to look at a deep pool of candidates.” Implementing a version of the rule in Congress wouldn’t be easy. But a first step would be helping members appreciate the perspective of staff of color, and the challenges we often face getting to Capitol Hill in the first place.
We go to Washington hoping to make a difference. But in many cases, low starting salaries and unpaid internships are barriers to entry. It’s a phenomenon Carlos Vera described last year for NBC Latino, writing, “Interning in Congress is a rite of passage for any college student who wants a career in politics, but they don’t come cheap. Congressional internships are generally unpaid, and in D.C. will cost you a pretty penny.” As Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, told the New York Times last year, “It restricts access to jobs in government to a narrower group of people.” The median white family has 13 times the net wealth of the median black family and 10 times the wealth of the median Latino family, narrowing the access of people of color to congressional internships that translate to entry-level jobs, which translates to fewer minorities advancing to senior staff positions: In 2015, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that of 336 chief of staff, legislative director, communications director and committee staff director positions, people of color held only 24.
As the son of custodians who worked hard and provided for me but never had much in the way of financial or political resources, I started my career as a staffer hoping to be an advocate for policies that I believe would positively affect the voiceless in our country, but I couldn’t ask my family to support me financially. I first worked as an unpaid fellow and was making barely enough money to survive while working nights at Walmart. My story isn’t particularly unique among staffers of color, Democratic or Republican, who are driven by a desire to improve the lives of all Americans but are also passionate about issues near and dear to communities of color.
Having different perspectives in the decision-making room is essential. At a time where the Department of Justice is signaling a reduction of law enforcement oversight, a showdown over immigration policy threatens to shut down our government and Congress weighs dismantling the Affordable Care Act — a policy consistently popular with voters of color — it is imperative that members of Congress have more staff of color providing them counsel.
In football, the Rooney Rule is vital in trying to bridge the gap between the league’s robust majority of minority players (72.6 percent) and its scarcity of minority head coaches (18.7 percent) and general managers (15.6 percent). In Congress, we need a Rooney Rule to begin bridging the gap between the staffs that influence lawmakers’ policy choices and the diverse body politic that Congress represents.
Yes, members of Congress answer to their individual districts and states, but our legislative branch, which makes national policy, must take into account the diverse priorities of all the constituencies it serves. In a government that belongs to all of us, a truly representative Congress would take into account geography, ideology, socioeconomic status and the needs of all communities. Part of that accountability means hiring staff that reflect America’s racial, religious, sexual orientation and gender diversity.
On the Democratic side of the aisle, there’s support for increasing staff diversity. As Roll Call reported in December, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer backs the Senate Diversity Initiative started by former Democratic leader Harry Reid and an additional initiative by Senators Cory Booker and Brian Schatz. But the minority party can’t do it alone. If Republicans, who control both houses and the White House, are committed to having a cadre of staff on the Hill that represents America, they can demonstrate it by backing these efforts, too.
The Rooney Rule isn’t a cure-all. But if the goal is widening the pipeline to ensure that a variety of voices advance to key positions in Congress, it would be a meaningful first step.