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Commentary

How Diverse Is Congress? We Really Don’t Know

Nov 10, 2016

The recent U.S. election offered one significant bit of good news: The number of women of color in the Senate quadrupled. Now there are four.

Maybe that doesn’t sound all that significant, but at least we know how many there are. We can’t say the same for the other people who work on the Hill.

A new report from NBC News4’s I-Team, an investigative unit that covers the Washington. D.C. area, finds that Congress isn’t following its own laws that ensure diversity among its staff. And that’s a pretty big deal.

The report, pointedly called Congress Not Following Its Own Rules on Diversity, starts with an interesting reveal: “When the I-Team looked for records and numbers on how well congressional staffers reflect the gender and racial makeup of the states their lawmakers represent, we discovered there aren’t any.”

Let’s unpack that. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s reporting requirements for the company that you probably work for are pretty clear—employers with more than 100 employees must track and report their workforce categorized by race, ethnicity, gender, and job category. It’s a federal requirement. Without it, we can’t really know how well or poorly big business is doing on this stuff. (Unfortunately, the information isn’t typically publicly available, as raceAhead’s crack data team is discovering. This makes the tech community’s willingness to publish their own—albeit dismal—numbers, very helpful to the cause.)

There is a report from the Office of Personnel Management on minority employees in the federal workforce, but nothing on Congress specifically.

So, NBC’s team sent a detailed list of questions to the Congressional offices in their coverage area—D.C., Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia—asking how their interns and staffers identify themselves by gender, LGBT, race, and ethnic origin. Only seven offices have responded so far. They’ve been busy; I get it.

But if we want to make sure our elected officials understand the needs of the people they actually serve, we need diverse talent in the government leadership pipeline. And, we’ll need to remove barriers to their success—like making sure Congressional interns, who typically come from families of wealthy, connected political donors, actually get paid. Can you imagine how much different the country would be if people from all backgrounds got an equal shot to see their government up close? To make the case, we need the numbers.

So, there’s one thing the four new Senators can do right away that will amplify their impact: Make sure they recruit, retain and report on the diversity of their staffers. Like they’re supposed to.

Here's an idea: Let's get the rest of Congress on board! Accountability is a pretty simple thing we can all ask for.

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