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Congress Isn't What It Used to Be

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The definitive source for data on our nation’s legislative branch, Vital Statistics on Congress, has been released online for the first time ever.

More than three decades ago, Brookings Senior Fellow Tom Mann and I created Vital Statistics on Congress, the definitive source for data on the nation’s legislative body. In the years since that first publication, we have released a new version for each election cycle with the most up-to-date information available on Congress. In 1982, Michael Malbin joined us to provide information biennially on campaign finance. And AEI’s Andrew Rugg updated information for the new edition and worked diligently with the folks at Brookings to help us make the transition to an online publication.

To commemorate our latest edition of Vital Stats — and our first-ever online-only free version— here are some quick facts to show how Congress has evolved over the years:

1: Just as in the country as a whole, the demographics of Congress are changing. Congress continues to be a majority white male institution, but the 113th Congress is the most diverse in American history in terms of both race and gender, including record numbers of women (96), African Americans (42), and Hispanics (31). When we published the first edition of Vital Stats in 1980, there were only 18 women, 15 African Americans, and 6 Hispanics in both the House and Senate combined.

The 113th Congress is the most diverse in American history in terms of both race and gender, including record numbers of women, African Americans, and Hispanics.

2: Military service was once a very common experience for members of Congress, but it’s far more the exception than the rule these days. From the end of World War II until the close of the Gulf War, a majority of members in the House and Senate had served in the military. Today, barely a fifth can count themselves veterans. The 83rd Congress (1953-55) had 309 veterans among its ranks. The current Congress has just 109. The implications of this change — from congressional attitudes toward war, to the military, and to American internationalism — are profound, as is the sense of commitment to a team and a hierarchy of leadership.

3: The financial barriers to mounting a successful run for either house of Congress continue to rise. Our Vital Stats coauthor Michael Malbin, the executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute (CFI), has compiled a fascinating series on campaign contributions and expenditures in congressional elections. In 2012, it cost the average House candidate nearly $1.6 million to capture his or her seat. Successful Senate candidates spent on average around $10 million. Ten years prior, in 2002, the average successful House run cost $1.2 million, while a successful Senate run cost $4.8 million. For further information and data about campaign finance in Congress, see CFI’s invaluable work in Chapter 3 of Vital Stats.

4: The most striking feature of the contemporary Congress is extreme partisan polarization, which has reached a level not seen in well over a century, and support for the president’s position on roll call votes by members of the opposition party has virtually disappeared. Party unity votes (the percentage of all recorded votes on which a majority of voting Democrats opposed a majority of voting Republicans) in the House, for example, have skyrocketed over the past fifteen years. In 2000, the percentage of votes in which majorities of the parties opposed one another was 42.2 percent. By 2006, this figure had gone up to 54.5 percent, and in 2012, it was a remarkable 72.8 percent, meaning that major swaths of the parties were voting against their colleagues on the other side of the aisle nearly three-quarters of the time, approaching parliamentary numbers.

The most striking feature of the contemporary Congress is extreme partisan polarization, which has reached a level not seen in well over a century.

Polarization has also reduced the regular order by which both the House and Senate typically operate. This can be seen most vividly in the dramatic increase in Senate filibusters in recent years. The 101st Congress (1989-91) saw only 13 filibusters; by the 110th Congress (2007-2009, that number was up to 51. Filibusters that were once rare and limited to major national issues have become routine and are now applied to all kinds of bills and nominees. Needless to say, more filibusters mean that less congressional business is getting done, which is a major component of congressional dysfunction.

5: Change in Congress is driven in important ways by population growth and migration trends, shifting congressional power among regions and states, and creating new opportunities and obstacles for the two parties. The regions which have seen the largest growth in number of congressional seats over the past hundred years are the South and West. The southern states, which had 104 congressional seats in 1910, now have 138 after the 2010 reapportionment. The Pacific Coast states have gone from just 19 seats in 1910 to 71 as of 2010. While these regions have seen a rise in their congressional influence, the mid-Atlantic region’s influence is on the decline. Whereas the mid-Atlantic states had 92 seats in 1910, they now have only 58.

This information is just a small portion of what’s contained in our latest edition of Vital Statistics on Congress. To learn more and download the data for your own use, please click here.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Jennifer Marsico is a senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Ornstein also writes “Immigration Bill or Not, Congress is Still Tribal” and “Congress has Changed, Not for the Better, and Now It Needs Changing.” Marsico also writes "Americans Still Crave Bipartisanship.” Arnold Kling looks at “Tribal Politics in the 21st Century,” Steven F. Hayward says “Save the Filibster!” and Howard Darmstadter asks “Who Should Know about Your Political Contributions?” Also view AEI's July Political Report.

Image by Dianna Ingram/Bergman Group

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