January 12, 2015

Headlines across the country, and in outlets across the political spectrum, correctly proclaim that the 114th Congress just sworn in last Tuesday the most demographically diverse in history!  The feel good appeal of this story even earned a spot in one of Jimmy Fallon’s monologues.  Try as I might – and I’m really trying – I just cannot get excited.

When it comes to race and ethnicity, the new Senate is 94% white, 2% African-American, 3% Hispanic, and 1% Asian.  On the House side, 79.2% of members are white, 10% are African-American, 7.8% are Hispanic, and 2.3% are Asian.   This is wildly out of proportion to the demographics of the United States.  The latest Census figures show that only 62.6% of the population considers themselves white, 13.2% report they are African-American, 17% of the country self identifies as Hispanic, and 5.3% of the population reports being Asian.  

Even the most statistically adverse can draw but one conclusion:  the racial breakdown in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives does not mirror the U.S. population.  We have a not so funHouse mirror where there are dramatic differences between the faces of this country and the faces of those who represent us.  And this is the best it has ever been!  Ever!

Social class is a nonstarter – the House and Senate are home to the affluent.  And these affluent folks are Christian – 92% of the new Congress self-identifies as such – almost  20% higher than the general population.

Turning to gender, 20 of the 100 Senate members are female and 19.4% of representatives on the House side are women.  Thankfully for any high school dance, women do not constitute only 20% of the U.S. population.  Women actually overperform at the polls turning out to vote more frequently than men but men still dominate the highest elected offices.

The Massachusetts delegation to Washington does not buck these trends.  Our House delegation is 78% male, we have one male and one female Senator, and the cadre is exclusively white despite the fact almost 25% of Bay State residents are of color. Only 11 of the 160 state senators and representatives on Beacon Hill are members of the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus.

The most popular take on these breakdowns though is “it’s getting better!”  And it is.  But at this pace we will have equity in 2400 or so?! 

And the current, dramatic shortfalls matter for far more than the symbolic.  They matter for policy.  

Literature on representation is clear – representatives of color, female representatives, and female representatives of color legislate differently than their white male colleagues.  All members prioritize making good public policy, getting reelected, and gaining prestige in the institution.  But Political Science research on congressional representation finds that members are deferentially responsive to the core constituents that worked to elect them and, most importantly, prioritize differently.  So, for example, a male and female representative from the same party will usually vote the same way.  But the issues they work to make their own, the legislation they choose to sponsor, where and how they serve their constituents differs.  Individuals of color and women bring different issues to the fore – issues that a House and Senate dominated by elite white men regularly ignore.  These men may or may not vote “correctly” on issues of concern to communities of color and/or women.  The point is, with a diverse body, the men will be voting issues that were previously sidelined when their colleagues in conference or committee look different than them.  From an agenda-setting perspective, diverse colleagues means a wider range of issues garner congressional attention.

So when that picture of the 114th Congress of all the members on the Capital steps is released think twice before expressing glee.  The most diverse group of federal representatives is actually quite unrepresentative.  And our unrepresentative representatives matter for substantive policy representation.  Always has.  And I mean always.

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