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Few minorities, only 45 Latinos, in U.S. House's top staff jobs, report says

“This is not about pointing fingers, or one party being bad. It’s not about one member being racist...It's a structural problem."
Image:  The U.S. Capitol
Latinos are the country's largest minority group, but no Latinos hold top House committee staff or leadership jobs, a report out this week found.Zach Gibson / Getty Images file

The top staff of House members is overwhelmingly white, with 313 representatives — about three-quarters — having no racial minorities in their offices’ top three positions, according to a new report.

Just 13.7 percent of staffers, or 152 of 1,110, who work as chiefs of staff, legislative directors or communications directors are people of color, according to the report released Tuesday by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a public policy think tank in Washington.

The representation worsens in the top ranks of staff of U.S. House committees and House leadership offices.

Latinos are the country's largest minority group at about 58 million and are about a quarter of the millennial population. But Latinos hold zero of those top committee staff and leadership jobs.

The people in the top jobs play key roles in helping elected congressional members write policy and set political agendas for the U.S. population that is 38 percent racial minority.

In addition, the positions are “stepping stones” that can lead to other top positions in the Senate or as leaders in government agencies.

“We’ve got to recognize that this is an issue. Congress needs to recognize this is a problem and take systemic structural steps and fix the problem,” said Spencer Overton, president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, told NBC News Wednesday.

“This is not about pointing fingers, or one party being bad. It’s not about one member being racist,” Overton added. “This is a structural problem and members need to take structural steps to address the problem."

There are 45 Latinos in top House staff positions, holding about 3.8 percent of them.

Less than 5 percent of the 329 white House members have a chief of staff that is a person of color.

“This is not about pointing fingers, or one party being bad. It’s not about one member being racist...It's a structural problem."

People of color hold top positions in 8 percent of the offices of white Democratic members, whose districts on average have populations that are 37 percent racial minorities.

Only 3 percent of the top staff of white Republican members are people of color. Their districts' populations on average are 26 percent racial minorities.

While Latinos fare better in the offices of Hispanic House members, they are underrepresented in comparison to the districts that their members represent.

The districts of Democratic members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus on average are 61 percent Latino. But top staff of Congressional Hispanic Caucus members collectively is 28 percent Latino. For the generally Republican members of the Congressional Hispanic Conference, the top staff is about 29 percent Latino.

Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a New Mexico Democrat who chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, acknowledged the lack of diversity among senior staff.

Democrats have recently started the House Diversity Initiative, "however, this study demonstrates more work needs to be done in order to make real progress on this issue,” she said in a statement.

“Congress must go beyond recognizing the importance of staff diversity, commit to employing people of color at the highest levels and be held accountable and recognized when greater diversity is achieved,” Grisham said.

Some House leaders pushed back on the center's definition of top staff, The New York Times reported. But Overton said focusing on the definition fails to recognize that there's a problem.

"I do think good policy and good representation comes from a top staff that reflects a constituency," Overton said.

Much of the diversity in the lead staff positions can be found in the offices of racial minorities in Congress, particularly those in the Congressional Black Caucus.

Of the 152 people of color in top staff jobs, 108 work for members of the CBC, Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.

Most of the top staff of color, 83 percent, work for Democrats.

CBC members account for 63 percent of people of color in top staff positions and hire nine times as many black people for top positions as white Democrats.

There is far fewer people of color on the staffs of House committees. Of 40 committee top staff positions, people of color hold six. Not one is Latino.

The same is true for the staffs of the House leadership offices. Twenty-one white people hold top positions in eight offices of leaders for each party, such as speaker or House Democratic Leader. Three are black and none are Latino, Asian American Pacific Islander, Native American or multiracial.

The lack of diversity on the Hill has been recognized in the past and there have been previous reports on the diversity of staff, though not focused on these top tier positions.

Senate Democrats have adopted a “Rooney rule” — a rule fashioned after the National Football League’s policy that requires teams to interview at least one ethnic minority for a job opening. No such rule exists for either party in the House.

Overton said one step that Congress can take is to pay interns, which helps to economically and racially diversify the intern pool and contribute to a talent pipeline, which Overton said Congress also must build.

The House has proposed spending $8.8 million to pay interns and the Senate has proposed $5 million for its interns. The final bill is in negotiation.

Overton also said the House should annually disclose its performance on the diversity of staff and top positions and adopt unconscious-bias training for those who make hiring and evaluation decisions.

He said that the report was not released to influence midterm elections, but that after the midterm elections in November, there will be new members who will need to staff their offices.

"There's this window," Overton said. "Take advantage of that to encourage people to think of diversity."