As Congress creeps into action amid a confusing and often hostile landscape, new members of Congress are already having a major impact on policy. Six out of seven new members of the Senate voted for a bi-partisan prescription drug reform bill, and while the proposal ultimately failed (although it has since resurfaced) it highlighted the power of new members of Congress to change the balance of power and forge new coalitions. Power in Congress is traditionally associated with seniority, and it is impossible to know yet how important each of these new members are, or even which will survive their re-election bid. Still, it is important to look at how this new class of members is moving the overall demographics of the US Congress.
The class of 2017 is 22% women, and 31% non-white, compared to 19% women and 19% non-white for Congress as a whole. While there are proportionally more women in the new class than Congress as a whole, the number of women in the House of Representatives has actually decreased, as several congresswomen choose not to seek re-election and were replaced by men. Representation in the Senate has improved significantly more, with high profile minority women such as Tammy Duckworth, Catherine Cortez Masto, and Kamala Harris replacing two white men and one white woman for their respective seats. They represent the gradual shift towards more diverse representation, but also the glacial pace at which it is occurring. At this rate, even assuming the trend is exponential rather than linear, gender parity will not be achieved until 2043.
What about their backgrounds? While a few launched their campaigns from careers as business people and media personalities, the overwhelming majority have backgrounds in the public sector -- typically the military, other elected offices, or law enforcement. This is fairly typical for members of Congress, although a few such as Jason Lewis, a decidedly Trumpian new Congressman whose previous career was as an alt-right talk radio host, and Francis Rooney, a businessman and former US ambassador to the Vatican stand out for the unusual paths that lead them to Capitol Hill.
The characteristics of the congressional class of 2017 also demonstrate the problematic ways in which polarization has changed representation in Congress. Only eleven Democrats and three Republicans won a seat previously occupied by the opposing party. Many of their compatriots were not seriously challenged in the general election, even in open seat races where key opportunities to flip seats typically present themselves. While progressives may find vindication in the easy path to the Congress this lack of competition offered for progressive candidates like Harris and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) there is strong evidence that lack of competition and incentives for moderation is damaging congress's ability to work effectively.
This touches on another issue, which is that lack of competition and lack of diversity are often treated as opposing problems. After all, advancing minority representation in Congress has often required the creation of minority-majority districts, which ensure descriptive representation of a particular demographic, but typically dilute competition levels by allowing neighboring districts to be less diverse. Similarly, women candidates face concerns about their viability and difficulty raising money early on, meaning that male candidates are typically chosen for the few competitive districts that remain on the congressional map. Outspoken women of color like Val Demmings (D-FL) and Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) would have had a very difficult time proving they could win more moderate districts, however descriptive representation does not have to come at the cost of competition if we change other characteristics of how Congress is elected.
FairVote’s proposed fair representation voting system would increase competition and descriptive representation in congressional districts. One of the ways this would occur would be through ranked choice voting (RCV), which would allow voters to rank candidates in order of choice instead of merely picking one. RCV has a number of benefits. For instance, third party candidates would likely enjoy more support, as voters would no longer consider them “spoiler” candidates. Additionally, the adoption of ranked choice voting would help alleviate the current hyper-partisan nature of campaigns. A 2016 study found that voters who participated in elections using ranked choice voting experienced less negative campaigning than voters who participated in traditional elections.
Fair representation voting combines the benefits of ranked choice voting with multi-winner districts. This combination would ensure fair representation for all of a district’s constituents. Having voters select multiple members from larger districts using RCV would erase the problems associated with gerrymandering and would ensure accurate representation of all demographics of citizens instead of merely packing one demographic into a single district. As FairVote’s research has shown, multi-winner districts would simultaneously facilitate more accurate representation of women and people of color and promote higher levels of competition in Congressional elections.
The new members of the 115th Congress demonstrate some of the promise of American representation. With the Fair Representation Act, we can deliver on that promise faster, in more parts of the country, and with less trade-offs, forging a U.S. Congress that both in its partisan composition and its demographics reflects the full diversity of the United States.
Image by Fred Schilling, U.S. House of Representatives (http://www.house.gov/content/features/20161129/) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons