Chapter 20: Who are Our Members of Congress and Whom Do They Represent?
“Poverty is the feeling that your government is against you, not for you; that your country was designed to serve other people and that you are fated to be managed and processed, roughed up and handcuffed.”
— Matthew Desmond (1)
“Plutocracy—rule for the rich by the rich—prevails in Congress for the most part.”
–Michael Parenti (2)
Who Are Our Members of Congress?
The United States Congress is composed of 435 representatives and 100 senators. The representatives are elected to two-year terms, and the entire body is up for re-election every two years. Senators have six-year terms, with one-third of them up for re-election every two years. Under the original Constitution, senators were chosen by state legislatures rather than by popular vote, but they have been popularly elected since the Seventeenth Amendment passed in 1913. There are no term limits for either representatives or senators. It almost goes without saying that House districts are more uniformly populated than are the states—except in cases like Wyoming where the House district is also the state boundary. The average House district has between 700,000 and 800,000 residents, but states range in population, for example, about 40 million for California to less than 600,000 for Wyoming. Note that the least populous states, like Wyoming, are guaranteed one representative and two senators regardless of their population.
We have, then, 535 people whose job ostensibly is to represent the people of the United States —or do they just represent the voters? In 1776, when states were writing new constitutions to replace state charters, John Adams wrote a treatise that he hoped would guide their efforts. In it, he wrote that a legislature “should be in miniature, an exact portrait of the people at large. It should think, feel, reason, and act like them.” (3) How does our Congress measure up to this standard? It is clear that congressional members, in several respects, do not represent average Americans. Note the following discrepancies between congressional members and the American population:
Occupation—Lawyers constitute .6 percent of the American workforce—and even less of the overall population—yet over 40 percent of congressmen were lawyers before entering Congress. Around another 22 percent of congressmen list business/banking as their occupation prior to Congress.
Sex—Approximately 51 percent of the U.S. population is female, while women constitute only 27 percent of the representatives and senators. Note that this is the largest percentage of women ever in Congress. As recently as the 1970s, less than 4 percent of congressional seats were held by women. From the beginning of the republic to 2020, only 2.9 percent of all members of Congress were women.
Race—Whites comprise 63 percent of the U.S. population, but 76 percent of Congress and 94 percent of the Republicans in Congress are White. Note that the current Congress is the most diverse it has ever been. For example, in 1945 people of color accounted for 1 percent of Congress while they account for 24 percent now.
Age—The median age of Americans is slightly over thirty-eight years. The median age of House members is fifty-eight years and for senators it is sixty-one years.
Education—Around 96 percent of congressmen have at least a four-year college degree, while only 34 percent of American adults possess a bachelor’s degree.
Income—The median family income in 2018 was about $62,000, while the base pay for representatives and senators was $174,000.
Wealth—This is more difficult to know because members of Congress don’t have to disclose their wealth in exact terms. We do know that twelve members have a net worth of over $50 million; 34 have a net worth of $10-50 million; 157 have a net worth of $1-10 million; and 155 have a net worth of $100,000-1 million. The median net worth of Americans aged 55-64 is about $164,000. Thus, we can confidently say that the majority of the 535 congressional members possess considerably more wealth than the average American.
Religiosity—In the general public, 23 percent of people identify as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular.” In fact, nonreligious is the fastest growing group of people in the United States. In Congress, however, virtually all representatives and senators claim to belong to a church, and 88 percent belong to a Christian denomination. (4)
Now that we know these disparities between Congress and the American people, we are better prepared to ask some probing questions about how our representatives and senators should be representing us. Our questions can be grouped under two conceptually distinct ways to understand how we are represented, which are called descriptive representation and substantive representation.
Whom Do Members of Congress Represent?
Descriptive representation—The statistics above directly address what political scientists call descriptive representation, which concerns “the extent to which a representative resembles those being represented.” (5) Collectively, we would ask: to what extent do our representatives resemble the population being represented, and does it matter if they don’t? Historically speaking, Congress has been very good at descriptively representing wealthy, educated, White males. It is, however, slowly becoming more diverse with respect to race and gender, but not with respect to wealth and education. Is a legislature populated disproportionately by men qualified to legislate on women’s access to abortion and reproductive health services? What are we to think about a legislature deliberating health insurance policy when the overwhelming majority of its members have never gone a day without health insurance? Ditto for a legislature full of wealthy individuals debating whether or not to increase the minimum wage. What are people of color to think about a predominantly White legislature’s ability to fully address civil rights?
These are important questions. Surely, men can understand and empathize with women’s perspectives. One does not have to be African American, Asian American, or Latinx to argue against criminal justice discrimination or against voting discrimination. One does not have to be of a particular religious denomination to uphold freedom of conscience for believers and non-believers alike. Still, there’s something disconcerting about a legislature whose members do not descriptively represent the population’s diversity, because representative democracy is about the whole population turning over decision-making power to a smaller group. It is inherently uncomfortable to turn over important decisions to a group that doesn’t look like you or doesn’t share your circumstances. Discuss with your friends, family, and classmates the issue of descriptive representation.
Substantive Representation—We can also ask questions about what political scientists call substantive representation, which concerns whether representatives “advance the policy preferences that serve the interests of the represented.” (6) Again, representation turns the collective’s decision-making powers over to a subset of people who are supposed to make wise, far-seeing decisions in the interests of those they represent. In this textbook, we are particularly concerned that the interests of ordinary Americans are served by Congress, the presidency, the executive branch agencies, and the Supreme Court. In many ways, Congress is the beginning point, for it can fulfill its function to represent ordinary Americans only if it passes legislation that the public wants and that serves the public’s broad interest in promoting the general welfare, facilitating justice, and securing the blessings of liberty. As political scientists Benjamin Page and Martin Gilens wrote, “It seems obvious to us that in a democracy, the government should pay attention to what policies its citizens want.” (7)
Congress’ substantive representation track record is not very good. Looking back on the chapter about how democratic the U.S. Constitution is, we note that this may very well be a design flaw built into the system. Consider the following policy options, public support for each, and the legislative outcome. (8)
|Policy Option||Public Support||Outcome So Far|
|Background checks for guns||89%||No law passed|
|Paid maternity leave||84%||No law passed|
|Overturn Citizens United decision||75%||No law passed|
|Government support for childcare||75%||No law passed|
|Medicare option for health insurance||70%||No law passed|
|Federally regulated drug prices
For the People Act (National voter access standards)
|Limited law passed
No law passed
|Pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants||64%||No law passed|
|Green jobs and infrastructure||63%||Limited law passed|
|Increase taxes on incomes over $1 million||62%||No law passed|
|Increase minimum wage||60%||No law passed|
|Medicare for all||54%||No law passed|
|2017 tax cut mostly for businesses and the rich||33%||Law passed|
|2008 Wall Street bailout||20%||Law passed|
The table above seems to indicate that the majority of Americans would like Congress to pass laws that address specific issues affecting broad swaths of the populace. They would like, in other words, to have Congress use our collective resources to make the lives of ordinary Americans better. Congress seems unable to substantively represent the interests of ordinary Americans, but does appear able to deliver on the wishes of corporations and the rich. For example, in the 2008 Great Recession, Congress bailed out banks and other financial institutions without providing corresponding help for the millions of people who lost their homes. In another example, Congress passed a tax reform act in 2017. Analyses of the change indicate that by 2027, 83 percent of the tax reduction benefits will go to the top 1 percent of wage earners. (9) Even worse, the tax cut ballooned the federal deficit and did not stimulate the economy as promised. This begs the question: What is the purpose of Congress if it typically does not act in accord with public opinion? And another: Could the lack of substantive representation be a key reason why Congress’ public-approval rate typically hovers between only 20 and 25 percent? Discuss among your classmates, friends, and family.
Congress has acted in the interests of ordinary Americans and will do so in the future only if enough representatives and senators are sufficiently afraid of the one real source of power that people have—their votes. For example, outside of the South, solid majority support for civil rights legislation combined with various legal, public relations, and civil disobedience strategies by civil rights groups put enough pressure on Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964—even though a majority of Whites was still uncomfortable with integration then. (10) Similarly, growing environmentalism among the public and the first Earth Day celebration were instrumental in convincing President Nixon and enough representatives and senators to establish the Environmental Protection Agency, to pass the Clean Water Act, and to enhance the Clean Air Act.
What if . . . ?
What if we did away with elections for Congressional members? What if we chose representatives and senators by lottery—representatives for one six-year, non-renewable term and senators for one nine-year, non-renewable term? What would be the advantages and disadvantages of selecting our legislators this way? Would you put qualifications in place regarding who is eligible for the congressional lottery? What if we did a lottery for nominations, and picked two people for each congressional election, who would then debate each other, put out platforms, and face the voters? Would that better preserve popular choice?
- Matthew Desmond, Poverty, By America. New York: Crown Publishing. 2023. Page 19.
- Michael Parenti, Democracy for the Few. 9thedition. Boston: Wadsworth. Page 198.
- Quoted in Michael Waldman, The Fight to Vote. New York: Simon and Schuster. 2016. Page 11.
- A. W. Geiger, Kristen Bialik, and John Gramlich, “The Changing Face of Congress in 6 Charts,” Pew Research Center. February 15, 2019. Will Tucker, “Personal wealth: a nation of extremes, and a Congress, too,” Opensecrets.org. November 17, 2015. Aleksandra Sandstrom, “5 Facts About the Religious Makeup of the 116thCongress,” Pew Research Center. January 3, 2019. Randy Leonard and Paul V. Fontelo, “Every Member of Congress’ Wealth in One Chart,” Roll Call. March 2, 2018. Jim Wang, “How Does Your Net Worth Compare to the Average American?” Wallethacks. May 21, 2019. Carrie Blazina and Drew Desilver, “A Record Number of Women are Serving in the 117th Congress,” Pew Research Center. January 15, 2021. Katherine Schaeffer, “Racial, Ethnic Diversity Increases Yet Again With the 117th Congress,” Pew Research Center. January 28, 2021.
- Suzanne Dovi, “Political Representation,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. August 29, 2018.
- Suzanne Dovi, “Political Representation,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. August 29, 2018.
- Benjamin I. Page and Martin Gilens, Democracy in America? What Has Gone Wrong and What We Can Do About It. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017. Page 53.
- Kenneth R. Peres, “These 7 Charts Show How Legalized Political Corruption is so Much Bigger Than Trump,” Alternet. October 16, 2019. Steve Liesman, “Majority of Americans Support Progressive Policies Such as Higher Minimum Wage, Free College,” CNBC. March 27, 2019. No author, “New SPLC Poll: Two-Thirds of Voters Support the ‘For the People Act'” Southern Poverty Law Center. May 6, 2021.
- Tax Policy Center, “Distributional Analysis of the Conference Agreement for the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.” December 18, 2017.
- Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, “Public Opinion on Civil Rights: Reflections on the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” July 2, 2014.
- US_House_Committee © U.S. Congress is licensed under a Public Domain license