Time to Change Congress?

Do Your Lawmakers Represent All Americans, Or Is It Time To Change Congress?

  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

Who Should Serve in Congress? People of all Backgrounds? Or the Lawmakers we have today?

Representative Patricia Schroeder looked like she was ready for a fight. She and six other U.S. Congresswomen were fuming as they stormed over the to the U.S. Senate building.

It was October 8, 1991, and the Congresswomen had learned that charges of sexual harassment had been made against U.S. Supreme Court nominee Judge Clarence Thomas. The charges had been made by a former employee of Thomas, Professor Anita Hill.

The Congresswomen were angry because the Senate had decided not to hold hearings on the charges. Instead, Senate leaders planned to go ahead with a vote on Thomas's confirmation that evening. As more than one woman angrily said, "They just don't get it."

The "they" in this case were the members of the Senate, made up mostly of men. What they did not "get" was the importance of the sexual-harassment charges. "I was appalled at how little they cared about how she [Anita Hill] felt," said Schroeder (Democrat, Colorado).

That is not surprising, she adds, since the Senate is made up mostly of men. In fact, most of Congress consists of white males, who are over 50 years old and were lawyers or businessmen before taking office. How does this compare with the U.S. population as a whole?

  • Male/Female: The U.S. population is 51 percent female. In Congress, however, 90 percent of the lawmakers are male, 89 percent in the House of Representatives and 93 percent in the Senate.

  • Race/Ethnic Makeup: The U.S. population includes 12 percent African Americans, 9 percent Hispanics, and 3 percent Asian/Pacific Islanders and other groups. Congress, however, is 87 percent white; 85 percent in the House and 96 percent in the Senate.

  • Age: The median age of the U.S. population is 32.9. Yet the median age of the members of Congress is 53.

  • Occupation: Of the total U.S. work force of 124 million people, only 6 percent are lawyers. Yet 45 percent of the members of Congress are lawyers.

Does this mean that Congress does not represent all U.S. citizens? "Yes!" say some critics. They argue that, because most members of Congress are white males, the special needs and interests of women and minorities are not being represented.

Other people say that the problem is not with Congress, but with the U.S. public and the way people vote. They say that Americans must change their attitudes and become more active in politics. This, together with reforms (changes) in political campaigning, would eventually create a Congress that represents everyone.

"Forget their Obligations"

Today's distrust of Congress is not new. Just look at "The Federalist Papers," a series of public letters written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay in 1787. One of those letters warns, "It is a misfortunate incident that those who administer the government may forget their obligations to their constituents."

Such distrust continues today. In a recent poll, 83 percent of those surveyed did not feel that Congress was in touch with the American people of their interests.

Recent news stories about Congress have not helped. A Washington newspaper reported that lawmakers had bounced thousands of checks in the Congressional bank that served lawmakers. It also was revealed that members of Congress had parking tickets fixed and had run up huge bills at the Capitol Restaurant.

Public opinion of Congress took a real nosedive as a result of the Thomas hearings. After an outpouring of public protest, the Senate agreed to postpone the vote on Thomas so that the Judiciary Committee could investigate the charges against him.

"Like Parsley Flakes on a Potato"

As millions of people watched on TV, the committee heard testimony from supporters of Judge Thomas and Professor Hill.

What shocked millions of viewers was the fact that the committee originally had decided not to investigate the charges brought against Thomas. The reason this happened, says Schroeder, is because of the imbalance of the committee's membership. All 14 members of the Senate Judiciary Committee were men. "What upset me about the Thomas affair," Schroeder says, "was that they [the senators] didn't understand Ms. Hill's charges or how she felt."

Schroeder says that what is true of the Judiciary Committee is true of Congress as a whole, it is not representative of the nation.

"This is not to say that a man cannot understand women's concerns," Schroeder says. "But there is such a strong majority of men in Congress that it becomes like a locker room. As a result, women are like parsley flakes on a potato; they stand out because they are very few and far between."

Minorities also are underrepresented. James D. Williams is a spokesman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He points out the African Americans make up only 7 percent of Congress. That is not enough to effectively represent the 30 million African Americans who make up 12 percent of the U.S. population, he says.

"Congress cannot be totally responsive," Williams said, "since it lacks much of the information and experience" needed to understand how African Americans live. This "experience," Williams says, is needed to deal with such issues as education, the biggest concern facing African Americans today.

"People Have to Roll Up their Sleeves"

Other Americans say that a lawmaker's race or gender does not mean that he or she cannot effectively represent his or her constituents. "I kind of doubt that the makeup of Congress is where the problem is," says one analyst. The problem, he says, lies with the voters.

Representative Solomon P. Ortiz (Democrat, Texas) agrees. He is one of 19 Hispanic lawmakers in Congress, only 4 percent of the total. More than 9 percent of the U.S. population is Hispanic.

According to an Ortiz aide, one of the reasons why Hispanics are underrepresented in Congress is that not enough of them vote. "Obviously, when you have a low percentage of representation in Congress, few things will get passed in your favor," the aide says. "Change has to come from the grass roots [local level of society]. People have to roll up their sleeves and get more involved in politics if they want change."

Are Term Limits an Answer?

One needed change, some people say, is limits on terms in office. The president can serve only two terms. But members of Congress can be elected again and again. Some people say that if lawmakers were limited to two or three terms in office, women and minorities would have more chances of being elected to Congress.

Not everyone agrees. "Term limits is not a good idea," says a League of Women Voters spokesperson. "If such rules are approved, Congress will lose a lot of qualified dedicated lawmakers." Instead, the League calls for more campaign debates, more chances for voters to meet the candidates, and for candidates to have equal amounts of money to spend of campaigns. These changes would give challengers a better chance of winning.

On one point, everyone seems to agree: A solution to underrepresentation of women and minorities will not be found quickly. Women and minorities are "slowly grinding their way up through the system," one analyst says. "But either way you look at it, it's a two-way street. Congress has to meet the people halfway.

Adapted from Junior Scholastic.

  • Subjects:
    Congress
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