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WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 10: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) walks through Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol on March 10, 2021 in Washington, DC. After the Senate passed the coronavirus relief legislation over the weekend, the House will vote today on the final revised legislation. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 10: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) walks through Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol on March 10, 2021 in Washington, DC. After the Senate passed the coronavirus relief legislation over the weekend, the House will vote today on…

AOC raises the issue of underpaid staffers and lack of diversity on Capitol Hill

AOC led 110 Members of Congress in a letter asking for sufficient funding to retain House staff, and increase diversity.

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On Monday, June 14, 110 congress members led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sent a letter to the House Appropriations Committee asking for sufficient funding to be able to hire and retain House staff, citing that as things stand, the average House staff member’s tenure is just three years. 

Recent reports suggest the House may be facing a “staff exodus.”

“Generational wealth shouldn’t be a requirement to work in Washington. Congressional staffers have been far underpaid for far too long. This has damaging effects on both policymaking and diversity,” AOC wrote on Twitter after announcing her effort to pay staff  “dignified wages.”

The movement to pay congressional staffers adequate wages, especially as congressional staff that is overwhelmingly white, goes back a ways, and despite permanent changes made in January, staff diversity is still lacking.

The 117th Congress surpassed diversity records after the 2020 election. The number of women elected beat 2019’s record, and there is now also a record number of BIPOC and LGBTQ elected officials on Capitol Hill — a 97% increase over the past decade. 

Still, it’s also important to consider that this dramatic increase is only from an original sum that was virtually at zero. 

Last summer, Rep. Tony Cárdenas highlighted the longstanding issue in Congress’ staff, saying the legislative body was “failing” on staff diversity, and that the diversity of staff among representatives and senators is not reflected in their staff members. 

He referenced a study by the Joint Center, which revealed in 2018, that 84% of chiefs of staff, 88% of legislative directors, and 87% of communications directors were white. Out of 1,110 senior staff positions, just 152 were BIPOC.

After his call to action, House Democrats adopted a new caucus diversity rule urging that congressional offices should “to the extent practicable,” work with the House Diversity and Inclusion Office, created at the start of the 116th Congress. 

House leadership released new rules for the 117 Congress, claiming to “modernize” the House of Representatives. 

However, there has been little to no increase of diversity or retention of staff, and it comes down to pay, which for people fresh out of college who don’t have the crutch of generational wealth to accept low pay, is a critical point. 

In February, AOC responded by saying that the only way issues like Congress’ “failure” in staff diversity will improve is through investment — like increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour. 

At the time, she was pushing for the minimum wage increase to be included within President Joe Biden’s economic recovery package, but it didn’t make it in.

This, even though House staff salaries were cut 20.7% from the Congressional Budget’s Office (CBO) 10-year baseline projection for house staff salaries and expenses from 2011. 

It’s one of the main reasons why a former AOC staffer said he left his position earlier this year. 

“She's a great boss and I adored my colleagues, but with two kids in daycare I just couldn't afford the job. It's not just that the Hill pays less than K street. It's less than non-profit or local gov't,” Dan Riffle wrote on Twitter. 

This week’s letter urges a 21% increase in the Member Representational Allowance (MRA), committee budgets, and leadership office budgets for fiscal year 2022 to erase the pay gap. 

She was joined by dozens, including Reps. Ilhan Omar, Mondaire Jones, Sylvia Garcia, Ro Khanna, and Ayanna Pressley. 

Their letter asks Rosa DeLauro, Chairwoman of the House Committee on Appropriations to consider Congress’ responsibility to the people it represents: 

“If we as Members  are  to fulfill  our responsibility to govern effectively for the  people  and deliver on our Majority’s  promises  to renew  faith in government  by ensuring that  Congress reflects the American people we serve, we must be able to recruit and retain a diverse and talented workforce to help Members, leadership, and committees carry out their work,” they wrote. 

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