Of the Senate’s 336 top staff jobs – the kind that carry six-figure salaries and behind-the-scenes clout – just 24 were held by people of color during the last Congress.
U.S. lawmakers are not subject to some of the government’s most historic, most celebrated anti-discrimination and labor laws. And there’s little momentum on Capitol Hill behind efforts to get Congress in line with the sort of equal access that private employers have had to practice for decades.
The best Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., an outspoken critic of Congress’ practices, could do this summer was to get a House subcommittee to go along with a study of diversity in House offices and how to achieve more of it. And that still needs congressional approval, which is unlikely until at least the fall.
"Too bad that we who make the laws don’t have to comply with those laws," Lee said.
The Senate figures come from a study conducted by the nonpartisan Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies of black, Hispanic, Native Americans, Asian-American and other non-white staffing on the Hill. No authoritative studies of House hiring exist.
The one group that boasts it practicing what it enacts for others are Senate Democrats. Fifteen of the 48 senators who caucus with Democrats said that more than 20 percent of their total staff is African-American, topped by Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., at 36 percent, according to a study by the Senate Democratic Caucus. Sens. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., Jon Tester, D-Montana and Jack Reed, D-R.I., had no black staffers.
Among Hispanics, five senators reported staffs with more than 20 percent Hispanic employees. At the top was Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., with 43 percent. Sens. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., Ben Cardin, D-Md., and Tester had no Hispanic staffers. The study did not say how many African-Americans and Hispanics were in higher-paying jobs.
House Democrats and Republicans provided no data, but several diversity advocates and current and former Capitol Hill staffers maintain the GOP efforts are improving.
In December, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., hired Jonathan Burks as chief of staff, making him the first African-American to hold that position.
And in the Senate, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., the only Republican African-American senator, also has an African-American chief of staff, Jennifer DeCasper. Brennen Britton, who is black, is Sen. Jerry Moran’s chief of staff. Courtney Temple, an African-American woman, is legislative director for Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C. Darrell Jordan is communications director for Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla.
Still, the numbers in both parties are small.
“Where’s the pipeline?” asked Dwayne Carson, an African-American who serves as assistant director of the conservative Republican Study Committee and former deputy chief of staff for Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C.
"How do you get (minority students) from college, but not just interning on the Hill, but to serve the people of the United States and their district for five or seven or 10 years so they can become a Jennifer DeCasper or a Jonathan Burks?" he asked.
Among congressional leaders, 43 percent of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s office is staffed by minorities – 19 percent African-American, 14 percent Latino and 9 percent Asian or Pacific Islander and 5 percent Middle Eastern or North African, according to the Senate Democratic study.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s staff includes an Arab-American chief of staff, African-American female national security adviser, communications director and press secretary, and a Latino member services director.
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., declined to detail the office staffing levels. A Ryan spokeswoman didn’t return emails with questions about diversity on the speaker’s staff.
“There’s been a long, long tradition of lawmakers being able to control their own staff, their political appointment,” said Burdett Loomis, a University of Kansas political science professor and congressional expert. “They’ve always felt that they should have somewhat more flexibility in hiring. Once that gets instituted, it’s hard to change it.”
For Lee, the experience is personal. She recalled how as a congressional intern and staffer in the 1970s and 1980s, she encountered few Capitol Hill staffers who looked like her.
Now an African-American House member from California, Lee said of her study: "You have to start somewhere and this is unprecedented. We’ve never had Democrats and Republicans agree that you’ve got to start somewhere."
It’s a small but important step, Lee and others say, in trying to remedy a long-standing problem in a government institution that is exempt from some of the anti-discrimination and labor laws that it has passed.
“She was able to raise a critical issue in a divided Congress,” said Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kansas, chairman of the House Appropriations legislative branch subcommittee, which unanimously approved Lee’s amendment. “That doesn’t happen everyday in Congress.”
While commending Lee’s efforts and recent diversity initiatives launched by congressional Democratic leaders, experts said Congress’s shortcomings could be more easily resolved if it followed the same hiring rules as the rest of the public and private sector.
"If Congress passes a law that they expect the rest of the country, whether it’s the private sector or public sector, or communities, or states, we should abide by the laws that we pass," said Elroy Sailor, an African-American Republican strategist who has played advisory roles for Sen. Rand Paul’s 2016 presidential campaign, the Republican National Committee, and Trump’s transition team.
California’s Lee says her measure could provide a path. It calls for the House’s chief administrative officer to issue a report within 90 days of enactment to address "ways in which (House) members and staff who have hiring and staffing responsibilities can be given the tools to combat unconscious bias in hiring and promotion, and with education on the negative impact of bias."
Pelosi and Schumer separately launched Democratic initiatives in the House and the Senate to boost diversity. The linchpin of both plans is employing versions of the National Football League’s "Rooney Rule."
The rule, named after the late Pittsburgh Steelers Owner Dan Rooney, requires NFL teams to interview minority candidates for any head coaching or senior operations position.
The efforts leave Don Bell, director of the Joint Center’s Black Talent Initiative and former president of the Senate Black Legislative Staff Caucus, of two minds.
"While I am very happy with some of the progress we’ve made so far, I’m clear-eyed that we have a long way to go," Bell said. "The greatest challenge in something like this is balancing the need for immediate change with the reality that change doesn’t happen overnight, especially in an institution that’s been around for hundreds of years."