The People’s Branch
The people’s branch, Congress, was designed as a platform for the American people to have a conversation about policy. It is their medium through which to tell their stories. Following the recent failure of major voting rights legislation and the national spotlight on issues of equity, many initiatives have focused on ensuring American citizens have the right to elect people that represent them and that the people’s branch mirrors the diverse country it represents. At 27 percent female and only 23 percent non-white the 117th Congress is both the most diverse Congress in history and yet remains staggeringly far from being representative. Equally important in creating accurate representation in the House of Representatives are those who select the stories that are told in and around Congress. Inside of Congress, the role falls largely to congressional staff. Outside of Congress, the role is assumed by scholars and pundits who tell stories about the institution. In both cases, structural biases distort the conversation.
In Congress, staff have tremendous power. Staff write legislation, strike political deals, decide which witnesses come to testify before committees, and conduct research to inform elected representatives about policy issues and constituent preferences. In Whiteman’s (1995) study of information in Congress, he identifies a “skew” in informational networks based on the circles of staff. Committee staff often invite witnesses who they or their chair know personally, resulting in a bias towards certain professional, geographic, educational and personal networks. Witnesses are frequently chosen to testify because of who they know and what they think (and in some instances the zeal with which they convey it). Therefore, staff identity is important in shaping the stories that are presented to Congress.
Thus, it is of great consequence that 91 percent of congressional staff are white and 64 percent are male. Senior staff positions are even less diverse. No fewer than 88 percent of legislative directors are white. In the Senate, there are only two Black communications directors, and only two Black and four Latino chiefs of staff. Women make up over half of all staff positions, but occupy only a third of senior staff positions. Less diverse staffing and promotion to higher positions translates to less diversity at witness tables and in meeting rooms.
Though recent Congresses have been more diverse in terms of elected members, staff hiring still does not represent districts in any meaningful way. This is partly a pipeline issue. Nearly half of staff started out as unpaid interns. This grants an advantage to those who can afford to take on an unpaid position in one of the country’s most expensive cities. Moreover, the fact that many staffers start at the bottom and climb their way up, and the scarcity of women in top positions suggests a “leaking pipeline” problem similar to other fields. Women either drop out along the way at rates that are disproportionate to their male peers, or face a glass ceiling.
A parallel story plays out outside of Congress among scholars and pundits. Those scholars and pundits who tell stories about Congress and suggest reforms are similarly also mostly white and male. A 2010 survey found that women made up 28.6 percent of full-time political science faculty in the United States. Only 5 percent of faculty were African American and 3 percent were Latino. These are the scholars tasked with studying the core political institutions of the United States and reporting back. In addition, the history of Congress is written by men. A study of 614 works of popular history on the New York Times Best Seller list found that over three quarters of pieces were written by men.
In the adjacent think tank world, a similar imbalance has taken shape. A recent study found that nearly three quarters of “expert” speakers in think tank panels were men and the lack of racial diversity at many leading think tanks is plainly apparent to anyone who browses their staff pages. This deficit matters because think tanks and academics play a key role in training Congress, through new member orientations and other workshops, and in educating and lobbying Congress, through expert witness testimony before congressional committees and individual meetings with members.
Outside of Congress, the gap is likewise partially caused by a leaking pipeline. Studies show that female political science faculty are cited less, receive less favorable reviews from students and face myriad other hurdles to success in the field. By the same token, studies have shown that notions of “expertise” and reviews of competency are racialized just as they are gendered, with racial and ethnic minorities facing structural barriers to professional progress, which create or contribute to leaks throughout the path of professional advancement.
In order to bring the people’s voices to the people’s branch, it is necessary not only to reinvent the pipelines that guide voting and campaigns, but also the pipelines that decide who speaks to and about Congress. The American Congress is the people’s branch. Congress is therefore not doing its job if it cannot represent the voices of the citizens who elect it.
The 117th Congress took a significant step with its introduction of the permanent Office of Diversity and Inclusion, meant to improve the recruitment and retention of a diverse workforce. The creation of this office is the first step toward correcting the pipeline and ensuring representative staffing, because it conducts trainings for prospective applicants, recruitment sessions and events for current staffers.
Outside of Congress, a movement for change is also gaining momentum. In 2020, following the murder of George Floyd that sparked a national conversation about racial discrimination in America, 300 current and former employees from 43 think tanks signed a letter encouraging greater diversity in their field. The same year, over 70 civil rights and civil society organizations, including organizations run by former congressional staffers, wrote a joint letter to incoming members of Congress urging them to make diversity a priority in hiring of key staffers. Academics are similarly thinking about and writing about ways to create a more equitable political science field.
Though a conversation is taking shape and preliminary steps are underway, much more work is required to make sure that all Americans are represented and have access to the tools that allow them to sculpt their branch, and tell their stories.