In forming a government for the people, by the people, and of the people, our Founding Fathers developed the idea a bi-cameral legislature. This Congress, composed of the House of Representatives and Senate, thus became known as the peoples branch of government. American children are taught in schools that anyone can be elected to Congress, so long as they meet the qualifications of the Constitution. So long as you meet the age and residency requirements you are indeed qualified to be a candidate for Congress. If we take a more in-depth look at the composition of Congress we see a body disproportionate with its Nation.
Congress has maintained a fairly homogenous make-up since its founding even into the year 2001. This conclusion raises no eye brows as both the executive and judicial branches of government have also maintained a very white, male, Protestant resemblance. However, Congress was formed for a distinct purpose: to represent the people of the United States of America. The melting pot of Americas huddled masses has been slow in placing leaders that truly represent its demographics. There are a number of simple and complex reasons as to why this under-representation of minorities has occurred.
Who is the real minority in Congress? This is not a simple partisan question, though it seems partisanship is a factor. An examination of the composition of the current, 107th Congress will lend greater light on where Congress stands as a representative body. A quick laundry list of the minorities in the United States being under-represented might read as such: African-Americans, Women, Black Women, Hispanics, Gays and Lesbians, Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders, Indians (Native Americans). All of the above groups have a unique history in struggling for greater representation.
We now examine some of those histories in trying to answer why Americas Congress does not look like Americas people. While Voting Rights legislation had a great impact on changing the composition of Congress, other factors exist as barriers to minority representation in Congress. One of these is the use of single-member districts. Of great debate as to whether it is helping or hindering minority candidates is the establishment of minority districting and the use of racial gerrymandering. The question of constitutionality and these districts has come before the Supreme Court with mixed results.
Congress Today How much progress have we made? The 2000 elections introduced the 107th Congress. While the body has diversified, the U. S. Congress remains a largely white male institution. Currently, there are no black or Hispanic senators. Nine percent of House members are black and four percent are Hispanic. For comparison, Blacks comprise thirteen percent of the U. S. population and Hispanics twelve percent. Women historically fare better, particularly in the Senate where they now hold thirteen seats, the most seats in history.
The 435-member House has 59 women members, up slightly from the 56 of the 106th Congress. These numbers translate to approximately a fourteen percent membership for women in the House of Representatives. While women have gained seats in Congress, this thirteen/fourteen percent composition is lacking considering women make up about half the population. As society becomes more minority-aware a focus has turned on a sections of the population previously hidden or unheard. Three House members are openly gay, and two lawmakers, Senator Max Cleland, and freshman Representative Jim Langevin, both democrats, use wheelchairs.
These numbers indicate todays Congressional members are overwhelmingly able-bodied and heterosexual. The Senate is prone to even less diversity with 2001 seeing no change in its minority composition. The Senate’s fair-skinned minority population stayed at three: Hawaii’s Daniel Akaka, a native Hawaiian; Daniel Inouye, an American of Japanese descent; and Colorado’s Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Native American of the Northern Cheyenne tribe. While the Congress of today is not proportionally representative of its people, it has vastly improved over the history of the United States.
Each minority group seeking equal representation has had a history of struggle. While some minorities such as Black Americans and women have had notable records in Congress, Hispanics and even more so Asian Pacific Americans, Gays and Lesbians, and American Indians are still more the exception than the rule on the hill. Blacks in Congress During the Reconstruction period, blacks wielded political power in the South for the first time. Their leaders were largely clergymen, lawyers, and teachers who had been educated in the North and abroad.
Among the ablest were Robert B. Elliott of South Carolina and John R. Lynch of Mississippi. Both were speakers of their state House of Representatives and were members of the United States Congress. Between 1869 and 1901, 20 black representatives and 2 black senators, Hiram R. Revels and Blanche K. Bruce of Mississippi, sat in the United States Congress. However, black political power was short-lived. Northern politicians grew increasingly conciliatory to the white South, so that by 1872 virtually all leaders of the Confederacy had been pardoned and were able to vote and hold office.
Blacks were disenfranchised by the provisions of new state constitutions (such as those adopted by Mississippi in 1890 and by South Carolina and Louisiana in 1895). Only a few Southern black elected officials lingered on. No black was to serve in the United States Congress for three decades after the departure of George H. White of North Carolina in 1901. In 1928, Black Americans would see a second wave of African-Americans enter the picture. Oscar DePriest, a Republican was elected from an inner city Chicago district. In 1934 he was defeated by Arthur Mitchell who was then the first black Democrat elected to Congress.
A decade later, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. would be elected to Congress, marking the first time since 1891 there was more than one black representative in the House. A breakthrough would come in 1950 as Dawson became the first black to chair a standing committee, the Government Operations Committee. Following the Voting Rights Act of 1965 black Americans continued to see an increase in political representation. The Voting Rights Act was passed by Congress in 1965. In 1957 and 1960 Congress had passed laws to protect the rights of black voters, and the 24th amendment (1964) banned the use of poll taxes in federal elections.
In March 1965 Martin Luther King, Jr. , led a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to dramatize the voting issue. Immediately after the march, President Lyndon B. Johnson sent a voting rights bill to Congress, and it was quickly passed. The Voting Rights Act authorized the U. S. attorney general to send federal examiners to register black voters under certain circumstances. It also suspended all literacy tests in states in which less than 50% of the voting-age population had been registered or had voted in the 1964 election. By the end of 1965 a quarter of a million new black voters had been registered, one third by federal examiners.
In 1982, the Voting Rights Act was amended to include provisions requiring certain jurisdictions to take steps to give minority voters an opportunity to elect candidates of their choice. Subsequently, this change would lead to greater black representation. While black men had been enjoying increased representation in Congress, black women and women in general have failed to come near a proportional representation in Congress. Women in Congress The 1992 elections were marked as the Year of the Woman due to the nearly doubled numbers of women in the House of Representatives.
In the Senate, womens membership nearly tripled. The struggle for women climbing the hill has been a long one, preceding even the womans right to vote in 1920. Women who did become member of Congress early on were often seen as tokens, who would fill the remaining term left by their husbands. In 1916, Republican Jeanette Rankin became the first women ever elected to Congress. Rankins fight for suffrage would pave the road for other women to be elected to Congress. During Rankins 27 years in Congress, 32 other women were successful in their bids for the House and Senate.
During FDRs 13 years as President, 23 women joined Congress. Margaret Chase Smith was the first Republican female senator, the first woman to win election to both houses and the first to be elected to the Senate without having been appointed to fill a vacancy. The years between 1946 and 1960 saw 27 women join Congress. The Equal Pay Act and Equal Rights Amendment would gain momentum as more women weighed in on legislation. While women in Congress fought for many issues facing female Americans, most thought it would hurt their bids for re-election.
In 1962, the total for women in Congress would reach a high of 20, only to dwindle to 11 in 1969. Black women were not making the same representational strides as their white counterparts. It wasnt until 1968 when Shirley Chisholm of New York won a seat in the House that African American women were represented in Congress. As black candidates had a second wave, women enjoyed a second win in their run for Congress. After the harsh losses through the 1960s, womens hope for Congressional office was on the rise. From 1970 through 1988, 52 nonincumbent women won election to Congress.
It was during this climb in membership Americans would see a woman, Geraldine Ferraro, run for the Vice-Presidency on a major party ticket. Representative Ferraros candidacy in 1984 would call attention to women as able political leaders and lend even greater momentum to women candidates as the 90s approached. Just as African-American women were latecomers to legislative roles, Hispanic women would not be elected to Congress until 1991 with the election of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida. In 1992, Carol Braun would be the first African American woman elected to the Senate.
In fact, 1992 was indeed heralded as the year of the woman. Before the 1992 elections, women comprised only 6 percent of Congress. While women remained a minority after the 1992 election, a record number of women ran for Congress successfully. Moreover, women had after the 1992 elections become leaders within the legislature. The census of 1990 was cited as the most important variable in the change of women in Congress. A large number of open seats resulting from redistricting and vacancies from retiring officeholders gave women augmented opportunities.
The domestic agenda of then candidate Bill Clinton also turned national spotlight on many womens issues. On a more controversial note, the Anita Hill testimony against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas brought the low numbers of women in Congress under scrutiny. While women did not lose seats in 1994, the year of the woman had definitely come and gone – due in part to the Republican takeover in Congress. The elections of 1994 and 1996 held women steady at approximately 11 percent of the House and 9 percent of the Senate.
While blacks and women have gained prominence in Congress, greater minorities in the House and Senate still exist in the Hispanic, Asian, Indian (Native American) and Gay and Lesbian communities. Hispanic Americans in Congress In 1936, Democrat Dennis Chavez became the first Hispanic to serve a full term in the U. S. Senate, following two terms as a Representative. He served continuously until his death in 1962. Throughout his career, Chvez fought discrimination against Hispanics, and in 1944 campaigned for the establishment of a Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) to prohibit all racial or ethnic bias in the workplace.
Since 1960 more Hispanics have been elected to Congress than in the previous 140 years. This change reflects the increase in the Hispanic population, the strength of Hispanic groups and grass-roots organizations, and the wider participation of voters following the passage of the Voting Rights Act. In 1976, five Hispanic members of Congress formed the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to address the needs of Hispanics. The Hispanic Caucus worked for greater attention to urban housing and education stressing the need for bilingual programs.
The 1980’s saw the expansion of Hispanic participation in state delegations. In 1989, Florida elected to Congress its first Hispanic Representative in 166 years, Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen She is the first Cuban-American and, as previously mentioned, the first Hispanic woman to serve in the U. S. Congress. In 1970 Congress enacted the Legislative Reorganization Act amending Rule XII of the U. S. House of Representatives (“Resident Commissioner and Delegates”) allowing the Resident Commissioner to serve and vote on standing committees.
In 1973 this law was extended to the Delegates from Guam and the Virgin Islands. The 103rd Congress amended Rule XII of the House of Representatives (“Resident Commissioner and Delegates”) in 1993 to permit the Resident Commissioner to the United States from Puerto Rico, and the Delegates from the District of Columbia, and the Territories of American Samoa, Guam, and the Virgin Islands to vote in the Committee of the Whole. In the 104th Congress, the House reamended that rule and stripped the Resident Commissioner and the Delegates of the right to vote in the Committee of the Whole.
During the first half of the 1990’s, the number of Hispanic Members increased due in part to substantial growth in the Hispanic population of many states throughout the nation. In 1990 Arizona sent Democrat Ed Pastor to the U. S. House of Representatives as its first Hispanic Congressman. In 1992 New Jersey and Illinois elected their first Hispanic Representatives, Democrats Menendez and Guitierrez respectively. In that year, the membership of the Hispanic Caucus increased to 20, the largest and most diverse group in its history, representing eight states, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and Guam.
Hispanic Americans should feel secure in the prospect of increasing congressional representation as their percentage of the American population grows. While another population of American voters already exists, it is often hard to tell the exact percentage of the population of gay and lesbian Americans. Gays and Lesbians in Congress The movement for gay and lesbian equal rights has come on the coat tails of the Black civil rights movement and the Womens movement. With increasing awareness of this unique minority population, attention has been called to those who represent.
While advancement has been made in relation to gay rights, particularly at state levels, gays and lesbians have no strong history of electoral success. This is due largely to the stigma upon homosexuals in American society today. Until homosexuality becomes widely acceptable to most Americans, gay and lesbian candidates for Congress will either be few and far between or in the closet. However, change is being made, slowly but surely.
When Tammy Baldwin was elected to the U. S. House of Representatives from Wisconsin in November 1998, she became the first woman the state had ever elected to the U. S. Congress and the first openly gay or lesbian person from any state ever elected to national office. There have been other gay and lesbian legislators who were either outed or chose to come out while in office. Since first elected in 1980, Barney Frank has served in the Massachusetts’ 4th District as an openly homosexual member of the House of Representatives. Representative Jim Kolbe gained national attention at the most recent Republican National Convention, not because of his position on sexual orientation and politics but because of many of his party members response to him.
While Kolbe was speaking, fellow Republicans put their heads down and blatantly ignored the openly homosexual Congressional colleague, while the American Family Association called for Kolbes arrest because he had violated Arizonas sodomy laws. With the successful candidacy of Tammy Baldwin and the strengthening of a gay voting bloc more openly gay candidates will arise, so long as the political climate is not hostile. While gay and lesbian candidates can hide their minority status, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, and often Native American candidates cannot.
However, belonging to one of these three minority groups does not carry with it the controversy a gay or lesbian candidate might face. Asian/Pacific and Native Americans in Congress While Asian Americans promise to be the most politically successful in the long run compared to Pacific Islanders and Native Americans, change has come very slow. As the Asian American population increases, Asian congressional representation should increase, keeping in mind that voting polls show Asian Americans with some of the highest voter participation rates.
Currently, five Asian Pacific Americans make up House members: Eni F. H. Faleomavaega from American Samoa, Robert Matsui from California, Patsy Mink from Hawaii, Robert Underwood from Guam and David Wu from Oregon. The Senates minority population stayed at three in the 2000 election: Hawaiis Daniel Akaka, a native Hawaiian; Daniel Inouye, an American of Japanese descent; and Colorados Ben Nighthorse Campbell, an Indian of the Northern Cheyenne tribe. Native Americans face a different kind of fate in regard to congressional representation.
While a total of only eight American Indians have served in Congress, a unique concern to this group is the fact that their true numbers will decrease in the long run. This look at minorities in Congress has proved that Americas legislative body does not look like its people. White men continue to be the majority in government due to a number of arguably valid factors. There is no dispute that incumbency is the strongest indicator in Congressional elections. Because white men have been in office, white men stay in office.
Another explanation for the lack of minority representation is the existence of our two party system and single-member districts. This winner-take-all approach lends itself to majority rule. Changing Single Member Districts In efforts to block this majority rule created by single member districts, the Supreme Court held in 1980 that racial minorities must prove that a challenged election structure was designed or maintained intentionally to dilute their voting strength. Congress responded with the Voting Rights Act of 1982, which created a statutory entitlement to judicial relief from election structures.
This had the effect of diluting the voting strength of protected minorities, particularly American Indians, Asian Americans, Alaskan Natives or those of Spanish heritage. By the time the 1990 census rolled around, nearly every state and local redistricting authority was preoccupied with the task of drawing “minority-majority” districts that would comply with both the constitutional rule of population equality and the anti-vote dilution mandate of the Voting Rights Act. These new districts produced remarkable gains in office holding for both African Americans and Hispanics.
Since passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the number of African-American members of Congress had increased from nine to thirty-eight, and majority-black districts were responsible for all seventeen of the African Americans elected to Congress from eleven Southern states in 1992. After the 1994 elections, under a new redistricting plan negotiated by black political leaders, Alabama became the first and only Southern State ever to achieve black proportional representation in both houses of its Legislature. The creation of these majority-minority districts to deal with the inherent problems of single member districts soon came under attack.
Termed as racial gerrymandering, debate goes on in determining whether these new districts will help or hurt minorities. Moreover, adamant critics of racial gerrymandering argue that it is unconstitutional. Racial Gerrymandering Race-based districting was pushed by a group marriage of convenience that united on the one hand, civil rights groups and black and Hispanic politicians seeking safe seats; with conservative white Republicans who stood to win more seats statewide if minority voters were packed into a few districts.
First, many advocates for racial gerrymandering believe that whites will not vote for blacks. While blacks have made significant strides as a result of the civil rights movement, white and blacks still vote along racial lines. Second, descriptive representation will result from the creation of majority-minority districts. Descriptive representation for blacks entails simply having a black representative regardless of their ideology. The effect of descriptive representation is that blacks will see other blacks succeeding in leadership roles.
Critics argue that in defining the interest of minorities in terms of minority representation in legislatures, racial gerrymandering may be sacrificing the political strengths needed to advance minority interest. In return for a few secure minority districts, blacks and other minorities have lost their capacity to influence many more districts. It seems the issue has drawn a partisan line as many Republicans see the advantage to packing minority districts. Both Republicans and Democrats have asked if minority districting/racial gerrymandering is actually constitutional.
The simplified answer from the Supreme Court is While racial gerrymandering of election districts is unconstitutional, race-conscious political gerrymandering is not. So it is that minority districting continues in the United States providing for assured minority representation in Congress. However, the formation of minority districts is only a short-term solution to the question of equal representation. As minorities grow it stands to reason that these packed districts will hurt their chances for congressional representation. What then is a minority to do?
Perhaps the only method of fair representation for minorities is through replacing single-member districts with proportional representation. Proportional Representation The United States seems to be quite behind the rest of the world when it comes to voting systems. The two party system of Democrat versus Republican in a one-winner style system is synonymous with democracy to most Americans. In fact, you would be quite challenged in any attempt to find an American that could tell you what proportional representation is, let alone know that the United States has actually experimented with it in the past.
What is Proportional Representation? As with most things political, there is not just one system of Proportional Representation (herein referred to interchangeably as PR) , though they all must share a couple of common traits to actually be PR. The first key difference in PR is the use of multi-member districts. While our current electoral system elects only one member per relatively small district, the use of multi-member districts would expand the geographic boundaries, thus increasing the number of delegates elected per district.
The second key element to PR is that candidates or parties are elected, as the name implies, proportionally with the amount of vote they received. For instance, if a district has 10 possible candidates and Democrats win 60% of the vote, Republicans win 20%, and say the Green Party wins 20%, then 6 democrats would hold seats, 2 Republicans and 2 Green party candidates. This method of voting ensures that all interested voters gain representation, and that the majority is not over-represented as is all too often the case in narrow victories of politically gerrymandered single-member districts.
PR as a voting system guards against what our Founding Fathers would have called a tyranny of the majority. Proponents of PR argue that single-member district candidates cannot fully represent their constituencies, leading to further voter apathy in our current system. Opponents of proportional representation fear that the inclusion of third, fourth, or fifth parties will lead to politically instability. As a means of compromise between the two electoral systems, comes the argument for mixed-member proportional voting (MMPR).
In mixed-member proportional voting, half of Congress would be elected via the single member plurality election. The remaining half of votes would be done through party list voting. This electoral compromise is hailed as the answer to bringing greater numbers of minorities into the legislature and giving a fair representation of constituents. To safeguard against instability in Government, the German Bundestag has implemented the use of electoral thresholds for parties at five percent of the vote.
This policy would not be out of line with the United States current one of requiring third parties to garner five percent of the popular vote to get federal funding. While at first glance, PR seems complex, it is quite sensical and easy to understand. The implementation of proportional voting would eliminate the need for racial gerrymandering. It seems that with growing numbers of minorities in America, the use of minority-majority districts will have to be reformed or replaced to give truly fair representation.
A mixed-member proportional election system appears to have the best chance of solving the long-standing voting problems the United States has faced. Conclusion While most people fear change, a change in electoral politics in the United States would undoubtedly terrify many of its voters. However, the growing discord with the electoral college in the recent Presidential election has focused attention on the problems of our current system of voting.
With the disproportionate amount of minorities being represented in Congress today, a change in the voting system is inevitable unless the two parties make a concerted effort to draw larger minority support and offer up minority candidates. Political reforms other than proportional representation may prove to favor minority candidates. Those looking to narrow the gap in Congress have looked at term limits and campaign finance reform. The idea that term limits would aid minorities comes from the fact that incumbents are so much more successful in elections.
While there is always a call by reformers of government to implement term limits, the probability of this occurring seems quite slim. However, campaign finance reform is making headway this year in Congress. Supporters of reform argue that it would open access to greater candidates seeking election and not just those supported by the big money interests or soft money backing of parties. This augmentation of viability for a candidate would enhance the chances of minorities becoming candidates, thus enabling their representation in Congress.