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3.1: Who are Our Members of Congress and Whom Do They Represent?

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    “Nobody ever says to men, how can you be a Congressman and a father.”

    –Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder (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?

    A Committee Meeting in the U.S. House of Representatives
    A Committee Meeting in the U.S. House of Representatives.

    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.

    The 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.

    So, there are 535 people whose job ostensibly is to represent the people of the United States. In 1776, when states were writing new constitutions to replace state charters, John Adams 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? An analysis shows that congressional members, in several respects, do not represent average Americans. (These stats are representative of 2018-2019.)

    Occupation—Lawyers constitute .6 percent of the U.S. 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 prior occupation.

    Sex—Approximately 51 percent of the U.S. population is female, while women constitute only 24 percent of the Representatives and Senators, which is the largest percentage of women ever in Congress. From the beginning of the republic to 2020, only 2.9% of all members of Congress have been women.

    Race—Whites comprise 63 percent of the U.S. population, but 78 percent of Congress and 94 percent of the Republicans in Congress are white. The current Congress is the most diverse it has ever been. For example, in 1945 nonwhites accounted for 1 percent of Congress while they account for 22 percent now.

    Age—The median age of people in the United States is slightly over 38 years. The median age of House members is 58 years; and for senators, it is 61 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—Congressional members don’t have to disclose their wealth in exact terms. However, at least 12 members of Congress 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, the majority of the 535 congressional members possess considerably more wealth than the average American.

    Whom Do Members of Congress Represent?

    Descriptive representation—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 descriptively represented 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 about a legislature deliberating health insurance policy when the overwhelming majority of its members have never gone a day without health insurance? What about these 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?

    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. Discuss with your friends, family, and classmates the issue of descriptive representation.

    Substantive Representation—concerns whether representatives “advance the policy preferences that serve the interests of the represented.” (6) 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 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. 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 67% No law passed
    Pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants 64% No law passed
    Green jobs and infrastructure 63% No 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

    Based on this table, it appears that a majority of people would like Congress to pass laws that address specific issues affecting broad swaths of the populace. In reality, 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 any 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. So: What is the purpose of Congress if it typically does not act in accord with public opinion? Could the lack of substantive representation be a key reason why Congress’ public-approval rate typically hovers between only 20 and 25 percent?

    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 civil rights group’s legal, public relations, and civil disobedience strategies put enough pressure on Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964—even though a white majority was still uncomfortable with integration. (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. (Note: Former President Trump rolled back many of the clean water protections, which President Biden has counteracted and put back in place.)

    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?


    1. Quoted in Eric Anderson, “The Persistent Female Leadership Gap Hurts Us All,” SE2 Communications. May 22, 2019.
    2. Michael Parenti, Democracy for the Few. 9thedition. Boston: Wadsworth. Page 198.
    3. Quoted in Michael Waldman, The Fight to Vote. New York: Simon and Schuster. 2016. Page 11. ​
    4. 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,” 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. No author, Women in Congress: Statistics and Brief Overview. Congressional Research Service. January 15, 2020.
    5. Suzanne Dovi, “Political Representation,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. August 29, 2018.
    6. Suzanne Dovi, “Political Representation,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. August 29, 2018.
    7. 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.
    8. 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.
    9. Tax Policy Center, “Distributional Analysis of the Conference Agreement for the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.” December 18, 2017.
    10. Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, “Public Opinion on Civil Rights: Reflections on the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” July 2, 2014.

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