By James R. Jones
Editor’s note: James R. Jones, an assistant professor at Rutgers University-Newark, is an expert on representation and inequality in American democratic institutions. This column is excerpted from an op-ed he wrote for The Hill shortly after Sen. John Glenn died in 2016.
John Glenn, the astronaut turned senator, was an American hero who dedicated his life to national service. However, Glenn made history in ways that are often forgotten. In 1978, Glenn famously labeled Congress the “Last Plantation” to highlight how the institution was exempt from federal workplace laws they passed, making the legislature one of the last places where racial discrimination was allowable. The senator spent much of his 20-year career on Capitol Hill working to end this congressional double standard.
As chairman of the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs in 1989, Glenn held a hearing to eliminate the double standard and apply civil rights legislation to the Senate. He opened the proceedings by saying, “What we have done in this Congress is to enact laws which we ourselves have not been willing to follow.” For example, in 1964, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin by employers. However, this law did not apply to Congress since it required executive oversight and would violate the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches. So, while this law removed barriers for women and African Americans in workplaces dominated by white men, Congress remained the exception. As Glenn testified, “It is like a doctor prescribing medicine for a patient that he himself would not take.”
As Glenn described, the stratified system of employment that left women and African Americans out of top staff positions reeked of hypocrisy and damaged the image of Congress. While Congress eventually passed the Congressional Accountability Act in 1995, which applied 13 civil rights, labor, workplace safety and health laws to the legislature, the Senate remains far from an example of a model employer.
In a 2015 study I authored for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, I found that of the 336 most senior staffers in the Senate, only 24 were people of color. Although people of color make up over one-third of the American population, they represented approximately 7% of the top staffers in the Senate. My findings show that the lack of diversity in the Senate is not a Democratic or Republican issue but represents an institutional failure to incorporate women of all backgrounds and men of color into key staff positions.
When Glenn called Congress a plantation nearly four decades ago, he did not do so lightly, as he understood the symbolic importance and political necessity of having an equal and representative legislative workforce. Members of Congress make their own final decisions on legislation, but it is their staffers who present options and recommendations, construct agendas, and implement decisions. If there are only a few senior staffers of color in the Senate, how can we ensure communities of color issues will be heard and understood?
As an institution that is supposed to represent the interests of the nation, more than any other branch of government, it is problematic that the Congressional workplace does not resemble the diversity of the nation. The first step to fixing this problem is to establish a bipartisan office of diversity to collect resumes of qualified applicants of color, screen candidates and help Senate offices fill vacancies. In addition, Republicans and Democrats must ensure that this office has the resources to help fill senior level appointments.
The persistence of racial inequality in the Capitol is undoubtedly linked to Congress’ unwillingness to collect important demographic information about its employees. Without data, there can be no accountability. To achieve racial equality in the congressional workforce, Congress must act to end its own double standard, which allows it operate as a privileged workplace with its own set of rules.
John Glenn reminded millions of Americans of the United States’ ability to do the impossible. We should honor his legacy by doing the improbable, promoting fairness and equality in the Senate workplace. This would make the Senate worthy of the designation of the “World’s greatest deliberate body” and close its long and overdue chapter as the “Last Plantation.”
James R. Jones is completing his first book, The Last Plantation, which represents the first major study of racial inequality in the Congressional workplace.