How Representative is the US Congress ?

When considering the representativeness of Congress, we typically start with the resemblance model of representation. While it is crucial to assess how closely the demographics of Congress mirror those of the population, there are other criteria to evaluate its representativeness. We will examine four key questions:

 1. Does Congress reflect the demographics of the people it serves?

 2. Do elections contribute to Congress being representative and responsive?

3. Is there a diversity of ideas and beliefs encouraged in Congress?

4. Are members of Congress effective in addressing the needs of their constituents?

 In terms of demographic resemblance, the 118th Congress, commencing in 2022, is the most racially diverse in history.

The average age of Members of the House at the beginning of the 118th Congress was 57.9 years; of Senators, 64.0 years.

 • The overwhelming majority, 96%, of Members of Congress have a college education.

• The dominant professions of Members are public service/politics, business, and law.

 • Most Members identify as Christians, and the collective majority of these affiliate with a Protestant denomination. Roman Catholics account for the largest single religious denomination, and numerous other affiliations are represented, including Jewish, Latter-day Saints, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, Greek and Russian Orthodox, Pentecostal Christian, Unitarian Universalist, and Adventist.

• The average length of service for Representatives at the beginning of the 118th Congress was 8.5 years (4.3 House terms); for Senators, 11.2 years (1.9 Senate terms).

 • One hundred fifty-five women serve in the 118th Congress: 130 in the House, including 3 Delegates and the Resident Commissioner, and 25 in the Senate.

 • There are 60 African American Members of the House and 4 in the Senate. This House number includes 2 Delegates.

• There are 61 Hispanic or Latino Members serving: 56 in the House, including 2 Delegates and the Resident Commissioner, and 6 in the Senate.

• There are 21 Members (16 Representatives, 3 Delegates, and 2 Senators) who are Asian Americans or Pacific Islander Americans.

 • Five Native Americans (American Indians or Alaska Natives) serve in the 118th Congress (4 in the House, 1 in the Senate).

Despite this growing racial and ethnic diversity, Congress remains less diverse than the nation as a whole. Non-Hispanic White Americans account for 75% of voting members in the new Congress, considerably more than their 59% share of the U.S. population.

The House has seen slow but steady growth in the number of women members since the 1920s, when women gained the right to vote. Growth in the Senate has been slower. The Senate did not have more than three women serving at any point until the 102nd Congress, which began in 1991.

The share of women in Congress remains far below their share in the country as a whole (28% vs. 51%).

Conclusion: Congress does not represent the diversity of the USA.


Is Congress Responsive to the views and opinions of the electorate?

Structurally the US Congress is one of the most democratically accountable representative bodies in the world.

·       Two elected chambers.

·       Elections every two years

·       Separation from the executive branch

·       A culture of parochialism ‘All politics is local’ (Tip ONeil)

·       Primary Elections

 The separation of powers ensures that members of Congress are not overly influenced by the executive branch, which promotes accountability to the public rather than to the president or a specific party. This system provides a balance between delegates (congressmen) and trustees (senators serving six-year terms), allowing Congress to achieve higher levels of representation compared to other systems with both chambers elected every four years. The House of Representatives, being elected every two years, can quickly gauge and respond to shifts in public opinion, while Senators, with longer terms, take a more long-term approach and offer their judgment based on their six-year tenure. This dual representation approach aligns with the Burkean (Edmund Burke)model of representation, ensuring responsiveness and reflection in legislation enactment. Unlike the UK's flexible election system, American elections are fixed, preventing politicians from choosing when to run for office. This setup requires House members to constantly engage in constituency-focused campaigns, especially with biennial elections. Each constituent effectively has three representatives – two senators representing the state and one House member representing the local constituency. The Senate's composition changes every two years due to staggered elections, despite senators serving six-year terms.  American can also chose the candidates for Congress. Primaries play a crucial role in candidate selection, with party candidates needing to consider the views of loyal activists participating in these primary elections.


 However, the winner-takes-all electoral system poses challenges for smaller parties, with significant incumbency advantages leading to limited party turnover in elections. Gerrymandering, the politically motivated manipulation of electoral district boundaries, further reinforces the incumbents' advantage in elections. State legislatures redraw district boundaries every decade based on census data, often favoring the dominant party. This practice contributes to the high re-election rates. Reelection rates in the House have never dropped below 85%, and have recently stretched to highs of 98% in 2004 and 97% in 2016. While the Senate is more susceptible to shifts in public opinion — reelection rates dropped as low as 50% in 1980 at the dawn of the Reagan Revolution — incumbent senators have retained their seats in 88% of races since 1990. In the 2022 elections — for the first time in American history — each of the 28 incumbent U.S. senators seeking re-election came home with a win. Incumbent House members boasted a similar level of job security, retaining their seats in 94% of races.

Few things in life are as certain as an incumbent victory in the U.S. Congress. ( political science author and professor David Mayhew first wrote about the "vanishing marginals" theory in 1974)

Link: representation in Congress Discussion

The re-election rate for House members is typically higher than 90%, raising questions about the competitiveness and representativeness of elections.

The Senate is disproportional!

Disproportionality in Senate representation exist due to the fixed allocation of two Senators per state regardless of population, unlike the House, which is population-based. This system results in states like California and Wyoming having equal representation in the Senate despite vast population differences.

Is there a diversity of opinion?

Representation extends beyond election frequency and population resemblance, encompassing the diverse range of ideas and philosophies present in the legislative chambers. While the Democrats and Republicans represent various viewpoints, internal factions like the Congressional Steel Caucus and Congressional Black Caucus advocate for specific interests, fostering diverse perspectives.

However, the dominance of two main parties limits the proliferation of ideas, with only two independent members in Congress out of 535 seats. Partisan voting trends and reliance on interest group funding further restrict independence among members of Congress, potentially marginalizing constituents' concerns. Despite expectations for members of Congress to secure federal funding for their constituents, challenges such as campaign financing pressures and increasing partisanship may hinder their ability to effectively serve the public. The influence of party loyalty over constituent interests raises concerns about the diminishing presence of independent voices in Congress.

Politics in the US is more partisan so more parliamentary There is greater party loyalty and more effective whipping systems. Partisan disciplinary actions have also increased. With the expulsion of New York Representative George Santos from the House in December 2023 over the opposition of the Speaker, this was the first congress since the 107th in which a member was expelled, and the first ever in which a Republican was. There was also an increase of censures passed in the House, being the first Congress with multiple censures since the 1983 congressional page sex scandal and the most in one year since 1870.

 In 2013, 70 percent of votes split along party lines. That meant that in almost three-quarters of the votes, the Democrats all voted one way and the Republicans all voted the other.

Who do they represent?

The ‘do nothing congress’. The 118th Congress has been characterized as a uniquely ineffectual Congress, with its most notable events pointing towards political dysfunction. The intense gridlock, particularly in the Republican-controlled House, where the Republican Conference's majority was often undercut by internal disputes amongst its members, resulted in it passing the lowest number of laws for the first year of session since the Richard Nixon administration. Congress is out of touch with public opinion. The majority of Americans want tougher gun control and support help for Ukraine. The repeated failure of Congress to pass the Ukraine support package, and sensible gun control (the 2022 gun control bill was seen as too limited) Among U.S. adults overall, 85% say elected officials do not care what people like them think. Just 14% say they do care.(Pew Reseach2024) Attempts to impeach President Biden, partisan investigations into his son Hunter Biden, and the impeachment against Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas as well as the first removal of a Speaker since 1923-(Kevin McCarthy removed for agreeing on a budget deal with the Democrats) have all been seen as partisan politics rather than serving the interests of constituents.

Most incumbents, (those who already hold the office) face little competition. So do they need to take notice of their constituents?

 The return of earmarks in 2021 after a ban in 2010 could be seen as an opportunity for Congress to bring home the bacon for their constituents in the form of spending on local projects such as libraries, schools and roads so that might be a good thing and evidence of a responsive congress but it might well just balloon the federal deficit. And also it might be subject to corruption where you've been influenced by a lobbyist to have paid into your campaign. Earmarks were originally banned following the Abramoff scandal where corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff used bribes to secure earmark spending for his clients.

John McCain famously said the US has the ‘best Congress money can buy’ and the influence of lobbyists remains significant. K Street lobbyists spend millions on influencing members of Congress through campaign donations. Corporations spend millions on PACs and Super PACS. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision lifted the limits on PAC donations and led to a huge increasing in spending by lobbyists.


What is the overall judgment? Is Congress representative? The counter arguments throughout this guide have been rather negative, I think the conclusion that I would write, rather writes itself. It does not resemble America, especially in the Senate.

 There are still under a quarter of women in the Senate. And that puts America behind many other countries when it comes to resemblance. In terms of elections, the gerrymandering of the House is thoroughly undemocratic so you engineer for yourself these safe seats and that can have a corrosive impact on representation.

Even majority minority districts, they may well create districts that have a majority of non-white voters in them. Increasing the likelihood of a non white candidate winning. But that has the knock on effect of making the other districts in that state more white, increasing the likelihood of a white candidate being elected.

There is a noticeable polarization in ideas and philosophies, beyond the traditional two-party dominance, as parties are becoming more narrow in their representation Congress fails in serving their constituents effectively, hindered by the overwhelming influence of corporate lobbying in Washington. This suggests a lack of true representation in Congress.