By Jonathan Allen
July 9, 2009
Black aides are so scarce on some House committees that the Congressional Black Caucus surveyed the panels. Their conclusion: black staffers are most prevalent when African American chairmen do the hiring.
The 31-person Democratic staff of the House Agriculture Committee and the 24-person Democratic staff of the House Rules Committee, for example, each have a single black aide. Conversely, the Homeland Security and Oversight and Government Reform Committees — both run by African American chairmen — have Democratic staffs that are 45.5 percent and 44.4 percent black, respectively.
The caucus is comprised entirely of Democrats, and the group gathered data only on the rosters of the majority party. Republicans on each committee have separate staffs.
“The survey confirms what members have noticed anecdotally—the lack of African American staffers on Capitol Hill, particularly in senior positions,” said Black Caucus Chairwoman Barbara Lee, D-Calif.
Committee staff jobs cover a wide range of responsibilities, from clerical positions to investigators and lawyers. At the highest levels, the aides have six-figure salaries.
The Black Caucus’ data, which has not been publicly released, begins to paint a portrait of staff diversity in an institution that has not traditionally kept records on racial representation.
The caucus’s effort mirrors formal and informal diversity initiatives under way in Washington lobbying shops and in the Senate.
California Rep. Howard Berman, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said it’s a legitimate issue to raise.
“We’re going to try to improve,” said Berman, whose 85-member staff includes seven African Americans. Like other chairmen at the lower end of the scale, he noted that he has aides who represent other minority groups.
And, he said, “I’m not firing anyone.”
Overall, the survey found that African Americans account for a percentage of committee staff — 18.7 percent — that is higher than the 12.8 percent of the national population that is black.
That average is skewed upward by the hiring practices of black chairmen, whose staffs range from 35.3 percent black on Michigan Rep. John Conyers Jr.’s Judiciary Committee to 45.5 percent on Mississippi Rep. Bennie G. Thompson’s Homeland Security Committee.
The House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, which is chaired by a white woman, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, ranks third-highest with African Americans accounting for six of the ethics panel’s 16 aides. Lofgren took over for an African American, former Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, D-Ohio, when Tubbs Jones died in the last Congress.
The staff of the House Administration Committee, where white Pennsylvania Rep. Robert A. Brady holds the gavel, is 34.4 percent black. Brady comes from a majority-black district in Philadelphia and he succeeded the late Juanita Millender-McDonald, D-Calif., who was black.
“I don’t ever look at the color of anybody’s skin,” said Brady, who is one of a handful of white lawmakers whose chiefs of staff are black.
Black aides comprise 10.5 percent or less of the staffs of nine House committees, all of which have white chairmen.
Four committees with white chairmen — Budget; Education and Labor; Financial Services; and Veterans Affairs — occupy a middle ground, with African Americans holding between 16.9 percent and 21.7 percent of the staff jobs.
The Small Business Committee, run by a Hispanic lawmaker, Rep. Nydia Velazquez of New York, did not participate in the Black Caucus survey.
Black lawmakers argue that the absence of black staffers can have an impact on the choices that are made in the course of a committee’s work — choices about what to put in bills and about what bills to make a priority.
Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., offered as an example the difficulties black farmers have had in getting timely information from the Agriculture Department. “Those black farmers aren’t getting their fair share,” he said, suggesting that they would fare better if there were more black staffers at the Agriculture Department and on the Agriculture Committee.
Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., an officer in the Black Caucus, said the next step will be to meet with leadership aides to discuss the study’s findings.
“We want to use it in a positive way,” he said. “We know diversity when we see it.”
Added Lee: “We are aware that there are efforts under way to address this institutionally, and the caucus is committed to lending assistance to House leadership and committee chairs to ensure a more diverse workforce on Capitol Hill.”
J. Jioni Palmer
Congressional Black Caucus
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