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If Congress really wants to become more diverse, it should pay staffers more and stop unpaid internships

House Armed Services Committee Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

For years, congressional offices have struggled to build more diverse staffs.

A 2015 report by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, for example, found that while people of color make up more than 36 percent of the US population, they make up only 7.1 percent of top Senate staffers. An earlier report that looked at Latino hiring found similar underrepresentation across all positions.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) is now urging fellow Democrats to make more of an effort. Specifically, he wants his colleagues to make sure they interview more minorities for positions, adopting what’s commonly known as the “Rooney Rule” — an NFL policy that requires teams to at least interview minority candidates for top coaching jobs.

“The more diverse the Senate is, the better it can serve the American people,” Schumer said in a statement. “Expanding the diversity initiative, following the Rooney rule, and dedicating ourselves to increasing diversity will be good for the Senate and for the country.”

This echoes language in the Joint Center’s report that noted that “a lack of diversity among top Senate staff warrants special attention because Senate decisions affect every American. … The lack of diversity among this group influences problem-solving, interactions with constituents, policymaking, and the ability for the legislature to represent diverse constituencies.”

This is exactly right. And applying the Rooney Rule may help.

But there is also a problem with the talent pipeline in Congress. Travis Moore, the founder and director of the TechCongress fellowship, has written eloquently on this topic:

The typical path to a Congressional staff position is through an internship or an entry level job. But most internships are unpaid, and most entry-level jobs don’t pay a living wage. In fact, one of the standard pieces of advice for someone trying to get their foot in the door in Congress is to offer to work for free. And entry level jobs — the Staff Assistant role — start at between $28,000 and $35,000 a year.

As a consequence, the pipeline to the vast majority of Congressional staff roles privilege talent that come from specific, economically advantaged backgrounds. It’s extremely difficult to survive that first job if you don’t come from money. Entry level positions require holding a second job or coming from a family with means in order to pay the rent in Washington, DC.

Staff are massively underpaid as it is. And cuts to office budgets — 35% since 2010 — have only exacerbated the problem.

This is a big problem. Because staff salaries are so low, typically only people who can afford to take low-paying jobs accept a position on the Hill in the first place. And often, only people who can intern for free to get their foot in the door at all get those jobs. Unfortunately, a disproportionate percentage of people of color do not have independent family wealth that allows them to take low-paying jobs for an extended period of time, or intern for free.

So even if offices are seeking out minority candidates per the Rooney Rule, they may still have a hard time finding candidates with the Hill experience necessary to fill top jobs.

There are other reasons to worry about low staff pay. For one, keeping staff budgets low pretty much ensures that staff turnover will remain high, and that the staffers who inform and advise the senators on policy will remain younger and more inexperienced than private lobbyists.

This means staffers will remain heavily dependent on lobbyists to explain policy to them, to give them ideas for legislation, to write bills for them and get co-sponsors for those bills, and to draft talking points for their bosses' letters, op-eds, and speeches.

For another, it also makes it much harder for Congress to hire and retain the experienced staffers who can help Congress hold the executive branch accountable — an issue of particular urgency under Trump.

In short, paying staffers more would improve congressional functioning in many ways. And improving staff diversity is surely one of them.