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What's Really at Stake When Congressional Staff Deserve Better Pay

Anyone who has walked the halls of Congress has seen the uncomfortable truth of hordes of white congressional staffers wearing suits that probably cost as much as their paycheck. But what does this have to do with pay? And more yet, our democracy? Everything.
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Earlier this week Roll Call published an OpEd by Lee Drutman that calls on Congress to pay their staff more. He argues that lower salaries result in inexperienced staff and empowered lobbyists. Having spent years as both staffers and lobbyists, we couldn't agree more.

But Drutman forgot an important piece about low pay: it has also led to a congressional staff that is decidedly white, male, and economically privileged - which stands in stark contrast to the American population. That disparity has serious consequences for federal policymaking, from how people interact with their elected representatives to the actual legislation passed.

Anyone who has walked the halls of Congress has seen the uncomfortable truth of hordes of white congressional staffers wearing suits that probably cost as much as their paycheck. But what does this have to do with pay? And more yet, our democracy?


The traditional path up the Hill hierarchy starts with an unpaid college internship. For many students, especially students of color, fronting Washington rent and forgoing a paid gig is simply not an option. Even for those who are able to make it work, uprooting their lives for the chance at a $30,000 a year staff assistant job after graduation is a whole lot less feasible given student loans and other obligations.

A bigger paycheck is one of the top reasons staff leave the Hill. It is an even more critical factor for those without family financial support and women who more highly rank the importance of compensation. That's no surprise given women staffers are paid less than their male counterparts. And both women and people of color face a very real glass ceiling, as they are most heavily concentrated in lower-paid roles, perhaps with the exception for those who work for Members of color and women.

This - in addition to insular hiring networks, lack of mentorship opportunities, and more - has led to a congressional staff that doesn't reflect America. People of color make up over 36 percent of the U.S. population, but only 7.1 percent of top Senate staffers, for example, and 68% of top staff were male in 2011.

Many staffers are dedicated and empathetic, with the very best of intentions. But that isn't an adequate stand-in for a diverse and representative congressional workforce -- especially given that most Members of Congress themselves don't reflect the backgrounds of their constituents. That won't change any time soon.

Women still make up only 19% of Congress. Only 35% of black citizens have a U.S. Representative of their race, while only 22% Hispanics, 12% of Asians, and 8% of Native Americans do. The majority of those serving in Congress are millionaires, while the average American household's median net worth is $56,355.

This is not just a problem because it is unfair. The strength of our democracy - the ability of Congress to represent the American people - is a stake.

While this may sound overly dramatic, it's not.

Research shows that the background of legislators profoundly influences the bills they sponsor and issues they champion. For example, women lawmakers are more likely to sponsor legislation on reproductive health and black legislators are more likely to introduce criminal justice reform bills.

On top of that, according to research by Professor David Broockman, constituents are two times less likely to contact a lawmaker who is of a different race than them.

As for class, well, Professor Nicholas Carnes's statistical analysis found that about a third of economic bills from 1999-2008, most of which benefited the wealthy, would not have passed if Congress matched the class composition of the American people.

So while we forge ahead on the gargantuan task of diversifying Congress, let's also look at that lower hanging fruit - congressional staff. Let's make sure that the gatekeepers who write legislation, give vote recommendations, and represent their bosses are more representative of the American people.

Fortunately, there are nonprofit or state-based programs that enable low-income students to intern in Washington, and Congress does have a helpful loan repayment program. Plus, Democratic offices deserve credit for more racial and gender diversity amongst their staff.

Still, more needs to be done. Those who don't come from the traditional, homogenous networks may not have the support - financial or otherwise - to succeed. In addition to paying interns and staff competitive salaries, Congress should strengthen or reimagine efforts like those of the Senate Diversity Initiative and Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute to make sure there is more diversity in who gets their foot in the door and who makes it to the top. The very fiber of our country depends on it.

Linda Forman Naval is the Senior Director for Public Policy and Strategic Initiatives for the Scholars Strategy Network. Ron LeGrand is the Vice President of Public Policy for the National Network to End Domestic Violence. Both are former long-time congressional staffers.

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