Dear White Staffers: It’s Time We Listened
Judged by the demographics of the senators and representatives, the 117th Congress may be the most diverse in our nation’s history. Behind the scenes, though, congressional staffers remain overwhelmingly white.
Capitol Hill is something of an insular fraternity. It has its quirks, its inside jokes, its own wonky language. Back in 2007, when I started working in a congressional office, the only smartphones people used were BlackBerrys, and social media was basically nonexistent. In those days, we traded jokes on chat programs and email listservs, or even specially created boutique websites—our own little digital universes and clubs. And even though gossip would occasionally leak out into the Capitol Hill rags, and sometimes even into the bigger news outlets (ahem), for the most part the life and times of congressional staffers was veiled from the outside world.
Now? Things couldn’t be more different. The veil is gone: Twitter and Instagram are huge, and there is no shortage of Hill staffers blabbing about what working in Congress is really like. Sometimes these folks share a little too much and lose their jobs as a result. You have to understand that Congress is staffed by twentysomethings who put in very long hours for very little pay. They live in one of the most expensive cities in America, they have to dress up every day, and they aren’t paid very much, at least on the lower rungs of the pay scale.
One result of this? Rich kids tend to get the jobs in Congress—which is to say, mostly white kids. That’s the focus of a new Instagram account, “Dear White Staffers”—and I am here for it. It’s provoking a conversation that Congress really needs to be having, and the account is roaringly funny.
According to a 2020 report released by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, highlighted in Washingtonian magazine after two groups of black Hill staffers called attention to it in an open letter,
- black Americans make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population but only 3 percent of senior Senate staff;
- the white/nonwhite ratio of the U.S. population is about 60/40, but among senior Senate staffers the white/nonwhite ratio is almost 90/10; and
- only 2 of the 100 chiefs of staff in senators’ offices in 2020 were black.
If we want to peel back the onion of honesty a bit, a lot of the lack of diversity comes from the Republican side of the aisle. It’s not to say they’re racist (although of course there have been racists on Capitol Hill in recent years, both elected officials and staffers). Rather, it’s more a result of the fact that there just are not, and have not historically been, a lot of black Republicans. One idea promoted by the two associations of black Hill staffers in their open letter is building “a stronger college-to-Congress pipeline” to get more minority staffers on the Hill from Historically Black Colleges and Universities and black student organizations at other schools—a good first step.
There are other communities that are underrepresented on the Hill as well, and lots of morally troubling employment stories, and Dear White Staffers is here to share those stories, too.
Internships, the gateway to getting a low-paying entry job on the Hill answering phones, sorting mail, and giving tours, require particular sacrifice if you don’t come from wealthy means. Assuming they’re even paid in the first place, the living arrangements required to get by on internship stipends can be pretty unpleasant:
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Beyond the internships are the low-level staff jobs. One of the more soul-crushing realities of getting such a Hill job is that you quickly learn that you are easily replaceable. And everyone has a shelf life, a limit to how long they can keep doing the work given the conditions of the job. There are benefits to working in a congressional office—student loan repayment stipends, a nice health care system, a pension and thrift savings plan—but they can only make up for the downsides for so long. Unless you’re wealthy, you are going to have either a horrible commute or lots of roommates in subpar housing. You might encounter racial discrimination in the office. There is very limited room for advancement, since there are so many more junior jobs than senior ones. And in the end, if you can’t take it anymore, there are literally a hundred people willing to do your job and not complain.
So in a lot of congressional offices, complaints just aren’t aired. Not many staffers want to upend their lives to sue—an uncertain and expensive proposition, and one that risks derailing a career.
As valuable as Dear White Staffers is in airing these problems, the Instagram account’s push for unionizing congressional staffers doesn’t make much sense, despite Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s openness to the idea. Congress is basically 441 little fiefdoms—more if you count committees and their staffers—each with differing leave and H.R. policies. It does not seem likely that many congressional offices will unionize—and the ones that do will inevitably be the ones that need it least.
If unionization were to proceed, how would it work? There is not a lot of leeway in what organized staffers could demand. The office space on Capitol Hill is finite, and often out of the members’ control. The budgets are fixed by law. The salaries have a cap. (Historically, staff could not make more than the electeds themselves, and while that changed at the high end last year, it is not likely to “trickle down” and benefit junior staff. The new rules increase office budgets by 13 percent and allow the most highly paid staffers to see an increase of 14 percent over the old cap.) For organization to meaningfully affect these things, union membership would have to be much higher than it has any realistic chance of becoming.
Still, the discussion of this and other issues facing junior staffers does have members of Congress and their leadership talking, with various reports suggesting that some Hill staffers are being told not to interact with the Dear White Staffers account.
America is divided and mad. If you’re a staffer on Capitol Hill, that polarization and anger is not an abstraction—it is the reality of your work life. Opening up your email, or using the software that sorts constituent communications, or picking up the phone is probably going to put you in a bad mood. That’s the baseline as a staffer. Add to that COVID and the insurrection that rocked your workplace a year ago and, yeah, you’re going to be unhappy and stressed. A free month of the Calm app, as lovely as that sounds, juuuust might not be enough to bring your blood pressure down or make working on Capitol Hill any more enjoyable:
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The beauty of the Dear White Staffers account, beyond using relatable memes that current and former Hill staffers can get a chuckle out of, and using anonymous complaining to create a stronger sense of community on the Hill, is in its calling people on their bullshit.
In all of the press coverage the account has recently received, the people behind it apparently haven’t responded to a single inquiry. And they shouldn’t, because they’re clearly smart enough to know that centuries-old institutions don’t like being challenged from within. And were the identities of the account creators known, you could safely bet there’d be a classic Washington effort to destroy them. I agree with this sentiment:
I truly hope the folk(s) behind the Dear White Staffers Instagram account never reveal themselves and just continue this giant push to build space for sharing the WTF all over Capitol Hill.
Air it. Change it. Rinse. Repeat. It's bigger than one person or office.
— Senator FloorCharts (@FloorCharts) February 2, 2022
Dear White Staffers is on the floors of Congress, in its halls, and in its offices, standing on worthy principles and griping about gripeworthy things. Congress should listen.