The paradox at the heart of the most diverse Congress ever

The chamber room, looking somewhat in disarray, with people standing, sitting, and milling about.
General view of the chamber of the US House of Representatives during the voting for a new speaker on January 4, 2023.  | Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images

Given Republican House control, more representation may not translate to more inclusive policies.

Once again, the new Congress is making history. For the seventh time in a row, it’s the most diverse that the body has ever been. The reality of a split Congress, however, may mean that such gains in representation don’t translate into policies that advance gender equity and racial justice in the near term.

This year, there’s a record number of women — 149 — as well as a record number of people of color — 133 — who’ll serve as lawmakers. Many of these new members are groundbreaking: Rep. Maxwell Frost is the first Gen Z and Afro-Cuban member of Congress, Rep. Becca Balint is the first woman and openly LGBTQ person elected from Vermont, and Rep. Summer Lee is the first Black woman elected from Pennsylvania.

Congress has long been overwhelmingly white and male, and each of these gains helps bring it one step closer to being more representative of the US as a whole. Additionally, although most of the increases in representation remain concentrated among Democrats, Republicans have seen slight improvements, including an uptick in both Latina and Black lawmakers this term.

Overall, however, these changes are still far from enough. Currently, 25 percent of Congress are people of color, compared to 40 percent of the US. Similarly, 28 percent of lawmakers are women, while 51 percent of the population is. Although Congress has made big strides in recent years, it’s still woefully unrepresentative of a country that’s continuing to diversify at a rapid pace.

Because of how Congressional control is currently divided, there’s also a bit of a paradox, explains New America senior advisor Theodore Johnson. Although this Congress is the most diverse ever, ambitious policies to help expand civil rights and protections for underrepresented groups aren’t likely to advance while Republicans run the House. “A more diverse Congress should create better policy, it should create laws that are more inclusive, and that account for more people’s experiences in America,” says Johnson, a former White House fellow who recently wrote about this dynamic for The Bulwark. Republican control, he notes, is likely to prevent that from happening.

Spending cuts that many GOP members are demanding, for example, could curb investments in social programs that “hit conservative hot buttons on race or sexual identity,” Andrew Biggs, an American Enterprise Institute fellow, told Slate. And GOP attacks on subjects like critical race theory and trans rights hint at how the party plans to continue promoting positions hostile to LGBTQ people and racial equity in a bid to rally its base.

Additionally, women and minority lawmakers who’ve been elected span the ideological spectrum, meaning more representation doesn’t guarantee alignment on policies that address civil rights issues.

The impact of more representation in Congress

Though it may sound obvious, a Congress that’s more representative of America helps ensure that more people feel like they have a voice in government, and pushes the legislature to consider issues that may have otherwise been ignored.

Studies have shown that such representation is important because it can help build voter trust, because it ensures that more viewpoints are included in policy and because lawmakers are more likely to advocate for constituents that share aspects of their identity. “This is about direct impact, but it is also about long-term understanding of what the real needs of our community are,” Annise Parker, president of the LGBTQ Victory Fund, told The Boston Globe. “It is absolutely critical that we have those conversations. That’s something that the best and most supportive ally cannot do.”

And while the burden to advance policies that help address inequality should not fall on members of underrepresented groups, many have played a key role in championing substantive bills in the past. Johnson points to the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act in the 2000s, the passage of federal sentencing reform in 2018, increased funding for HBCUs, and the approval of an anti-lynching bill in 2022 as policies that would not have come to fruition had Black lawmakers not advocated for them.

Such pressure has even resulted in success across party lines. Take, for example, the First Step Act, sentencing reforms that passed under President Donald Trump in 2018. “Diversity, frankly, in Congress allowed that bill to pass,” Johnson told Vox. Other examples include the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’s vocal lobbying for immigration reforms like the end of Title 42, and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus’s support for legislation to combat anti-Asian hate crimes.

Past research from Georgetown political scientist Michele Swers has also found that women lawmakers have been more likely to sponsor bills focused on women’s health, and more involved in policy debates addressing gender equity. While examining policies in the mid-1990s, for example, Swers found that liberal women legislators sponsored an average of 10.6 bills related to women’s health, roughly 5.3 more than liberal men did.

“I found that generally, the more something is directly connected to policy consequences for women, so when we think of things like women’s rights issues, that the women in Congress were more engaged, they were more involved,” Swers has said in an interview with the American Enterprise Institute. Women have been at the forefront of pushing policies focused on paid family leave, sexual misconduct in the military, paycheck fairness, abortion rights, and maternal mortality. LGBTQ members, who’ve seen their ranks grow in Congress, have also been integral in the passage of bills like the Respect for Marriage Act, which codifies federal protections for same-sex marriage.

Whether more inclusive legislation comes to fruition could depend on party control.

In both this term and other recent ones, there have been limitations on exactly what policies a more diverse Congress can achieve given the numbers that Democrats have.

A Republican House majority could well stymie efforts to pass bills that address issues including discrimination against LGBTQ people, immigration reform, and police reform. And previously, Democrats’ narrow Senate majority similarly led to the failure of bills to shield abortion rights, to establish universal childcare, and to strengthen voting rights. The Democratic House also passed legislation like the Equality Act, which barred discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation, as well as the Dream Act, which would give undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children a pathway to citizenship, but neither made it through the Senate.

Currently, there’s more diverse representation among Democrats, though Republicans are seeing some increases, too. This year, Republicans elected three new Latina lawmakers to Congress, as well as the highest number of Black Republicans — 5 — in decades. The contrast between the two parties remains stark, though. All told, about 40 percent of Democratic lawmakers are people of color, while 10 percent of Republican lawmakers are. Similarly, 41 percent of Democratic lawmakers are women, while 15 percent of Republicans are.

And of the record number of 19 Latina women, 27 Black women, and 13 LGBTQ candidates who were elected this cycle, most were Democrats.

There is an open question of whether greater diversity in the Republican caucus will translate to a new approach to policymaking. GOP lawmakers including Sens. Tim Scott and Marco Rubio have worked on criminal justice reform and immigration in the past, for instance, though Johnson notes that Republican lawmakers may face pressure to shy away from issues related to race, due to the party’s aversion to identity politics. Additionally, many members of the GOP aren’t just actively opposing certain policies focused on civil rights, they’re advancing rhetoric that is harmful to particular communities — including anti-trans statements and the elevation of ideas like the “great replacement theory.”

It’s also worth noting that more diversity in Congress doesn’t mean a monolithic approach to politics given the significant ideological differences among women and minority lawmakers. While Democrats, and some moderate Republican women, are supportive of codifying Roe, for example, newly elected Sen. Katie Britt, the first woman elected to the Senate from Alabama, previously cheered the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the precedent.

“Demographic representation does not always equate representation on particular policy issues because all Latinos, all women, all LGBTQ folks do not agree on a policy agenda,” says Kelly Dittmar, a political scientist at Rutgers and the scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics. “We don’t just elect women, and XYZ policy passes.”

There’s still much further Congress has to go

Despite the inroads that have been made on representation, there continue to be major gaps both at the lawmaker and staffer levels. An October study from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that 18 percent of senior House staffers are people of color, which falls notably short of the 40 percent of the population that are also nonwhite.

“While the 118th Congress is the most racially diverse, its staff makeup is breaking records for a lack of diversity,” Dr. LaShonda Brenson, a senior researcher at the Joint Center, told Vox. “People of color staffers now make up about 25 percent of the House’s workforce, according to LegiStorm data. That’s lower than it’s been since the 115th Congress (2017-2019).”

Low salaries in Congress, unpredictable working hours, and hostile conditions have been among the factors that have limited who is able to take on staffer jobs. An increase to pay minimums in the House, as well as a concurrent unionizing effort, are intended to make Congress a more inclusive and supportive place to work.

Such gaps can also impact which policies are prioritized, given the pivotal role that staffers play in crafting and shaping legislation. Addressing racial and gender disparities are central to developing any major policy — from funding for infrastructure projects to the distribution of pandemic business loans.

“Policies are not neutral. Different groups experience them differently, and you have to have a staff that has that type of knowledge and perspective,” says University of Minnesota political scientist Michael Minta, who’s studied the importance of diversity in Congress.

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