The finest (white male) Congress that money can buy
Every year, I hold a writing competition for my politics students, which focuses upon the US Congress. This year, students were asked to examine whether, following the 2016 elections, the "people's branch" has become more or less representative. Here is a summary of their findings:
Whites don’t vote for blacks…
By Emily Crane and Jessica Northeast
Christina Marcos of The Hill magazine states that ‘the 115th Congress will be the most racially diverse in history,’. Yet Marcos admits, in the same article, that ‘Congress will still be overwhelmingly white and male compared to the overall population.’ There are only three African-American members of the Senate, out of a total of 100. Furthermore, Congress is not only racially unrepresentative, but women are also not properly represented in either the House of Representatives or the Senate, the two chambers that make up the US Congress. Fifty percent of the American population is female, yet only twenty one percent of Senators are female and only 88 out of 435 members of the House are female.
Nevertheless, there are some causes for optimism. The locality rule means that members of Congress must come from the district they represent. Moreover, the creation of majority-minority districts, whereby boundaries are gerrymandered so that the majority of voters within them are non-white, has boosted African-American representation in the House of Representatives. Consequently, there are 46 African-Americans in the House of Representatives. Yet such optimism must be tempered by the fact that the numbers of African-Americans in Congress has sat at around 42-48 since the 1970s. Thus, it is reasonable to assume that the only winnable seats are often those that have been gerrymandered to allow blacks to vote for blacks.
The Congress is also very old; the average age of a senator is 62. Congress does not resemble you if you are under 62 years old. No one under 30 can become a member of the Senate, so it is legally impossible for the Senate to resemble you if you are young.
If elections changed anything, they wouldn’t have so many...
By Molly Minter and Katharine Goodger
Congressional elections in the US are held every 2 years and are fixed so politicians cannot choose to fight in an election when it suits them. There have been 12 elections since 1992. This frequency requires members of the House of Representatives to constantly campaign on behalf of the ‘folks back home’. They are in permanent campaign and voter appeasement mode. Voters also choose candidates in primaries. Therefore, candidates must consider the views of activists who vote in large numbers in these elections. The rise of the Tea Party provides evidence of how responsive Congress can be to a change in mood. It started out in 2009 and by 2010 had won a significant number of races to become the most influential faction in the House. Voters in the UK have one representative in Parliament – their MP – while all voters in the US have three national politicians to act on their behalf (two Senators and one member of the House of Representatives).
So far, so good.
Yet it is difficult to argue that these elections change anything, due to the high re-election rate, which in 2016 stood at 97% for the House. Only 13 seats were changed hands between the two political parties. Just as gerrymandering has guaranteed the creation of majority-minority districts, it has also guaranteed an inbuilt bias for the Republicans, who have used state legislatures to redraw Congressional district boundaries in a way that maximises the party’s support in specific states.
Money money money…
By Lizzie Goodman and Isabel Milford
The Senate, which cannot be gerrymandered (state lines are permanent, thank goodness), is nonetheless unrepresentative in its own special way. Some Senators represent millions of voters, while others simply don't. Additionally, the influence of Super PACs on Congressional campaigns also shows that candidates are influenced by big corporations, and may not be completely neutral or representative of their constituents. We are not sure that ordinary Americans wake up in the morning and declare that slashing corporate taxes is their number one priority.
Incumbents (almost) always win…
By Miles Hatch and Georgia Sherry
Gerrymandering has resulted in an increase in the number of safe seats. It has been this way for almost half a century now; in 1968 the re-election rate was 97%, just as it was in 2016, with the lowest re-election rate since then being only 85%. If we are to find scraps of comfort, we could argue that these safe seats allows politicians to turn off “campaign mode” and allow them to put forward more controversial bills that are so often avoided. However, the independence that such a position ought to bring has not materialised. Congressmen are more loyal to their party than ever before, since the only thing they still fear is a primary challenge.
The party is far from over...
By Harry Powell and James Salvage
Third Parties are shockingly underrepresented in Congress, as is evident from a plethora of factors. Some may claim that minor groups are indeed fairly represented, citing weak party discipline. They also point to the odd Democrats in the South that supports gun ownership rights, or a wavering Republican on the repeal of Obamacare. Yet the fact that these candidates are still members of the Democrat and Republican parties renders these points moot. Wither the Libertarians? The Greens!?
Furthermore, while there are two independent members of the Senate, both vote with Democrats on nearly every issue. Even we exclude these two characters, the fact is that 533 out the 535 seats in Congress are controlled by Republicans and Democrats, which makes any claim of “fair representation” seem asinine. As Lucas Eaves asserts, “Recent polls show that 40% of Americans consider themselves neither Republican nor Democrat, [yet] 99.6% of Congress people do.”
Additional reporting also by Lily Spencer, Mathia Bull, Matthew Runacres, Devrim Agul, Max Barber-Kemp, Natalie MacLean, Rachel Barrett and Emma Bowkett