The Makeup of a Truly Representative Congress

The role of the United States Congress is to represent the citizens of the United States—they are supposed to be “the voice of the people”. In order to do this, they should come from diverse racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds, just like Americans. But how representative is Congress really? Does its makeup match the makeup of the American citizenry? In this post, I’ll try my best to answer that question.

The Data
It is not difficult to find lists of each member of the Senate and House of Representatives, but I wanted a set of data that included not only each member’s name, state, and political party, but also their gender, race, and religion. That required combining multiple data sources. I started with a list of the 535 members of congress (100 from the Senate and 435 from the House of Representatives) which included race and gender and merged that together with a list that included religion.

I then collected information about the population of the United States. I obtained race data from the Kaiser Family Foundation (http://kff.org/other/state-indicator/distribution-by-raceethnicity/?dataView=1&currentTimeframe=0&sortModel=%7B%22colId%22:%22Location%22,%22sort%22:%22asc%22%7D), gender data from the US Census Bureau (https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/table/PST045215/00) and religion data from the Pew Research Center (http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/). Based on the percentages of the population for each gender, race, and religion, I calculated what the US population would look like if it were only 535 people, which would allow me to compare to the 535 members of Congress.

Visualizations
From here, I used Tableau Public to chart the data. Let’s start with gender.

Note: The color represents the political party; blue is Democrat; red is Republican; orange is Independent.

Congress has 104 women (19%) and 431 men (81%) while the United States population is 51% female and 49% male. In order to be truly representative, in terms of gender, 168 seats currently held by men would need to be won by women (taking the number to 272 women and 263 men). It is also worth noting that, of the 104 women, 76 are Democrat (73%), while only 28 are Republican (27%).

Next, we’ll take a look at religious diversity.

Every religion is under-represented, with the exception of Judaism and Christianity (please note that this includes all Christian sects, including Mormons and Christian Scientists). Here are a few observations:
• Christianity represents 92% of Congress, even though it only represents 71% of the US populace.
• Judaism comprises 1.9% of the population and yet it’s representation in Congress is 5%.
• Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam account for a total of 2.3% of the population but only hold 0.9% of the seats in Congress.
• 7.1 % of the population are atheist or agnostic and 2.4% ascribe to “other” religions (this includes “don’t know”, other world religions, Pagan, Wiccan, Native American religions, and numerous others), yet not a single member of Congress falls into any of these categories.
• Finally, all but two non-Christian members are Democrats—there is one Republican (Lee Zeldin, a House member from New York) one Independent (Bernie Sanders).
Finally, let’s take a look at racial diversity.

It is disconcerting to see that every race is under-represented in Congress, except White. Here are a few additional observations:
• American Indian/Alaska Native hold one quarter of the seats needed to match the population of the US.
• Only 2% of Congress is Asian American or Pacific Islander, while the population is 5.8%.
• 47 members of Congress are African America/Black (8.8%), while the population is 12.2% African American.
• Hispanics/Latinos are very under-represented in Congress, only holding 6.4% of the seats, even though the population is 17.6% Hispanic/Latino.
• 1.8% of the population claims to be members of two or more races, yet no members of Congress make this claim. (It is possible, of course, that the members of Congress simply choose one of their races as their “primary”.)
• Whites still comprise the majority of the population (61.8%), but are heavily over-represented in Congress, holding 82.6% of the seats.

So, what does all this mean? After the current Congress was voted into office, in 2014, there were many articles and discussions claiming that this was the most diverse Congress in history. While this is factually accurate, it is a stretch to call Congress diverse as whites, Christians, and males are still greatly over-represented in the federal government. Progress has been made and continues to be made, but we still have a long way to go before we have a truly representative Congress.

If you’d like to interact with this visualization, you can check it out on my Tableau Public page. The visualization allows you to hover over each square to see the person’s name, party, race, religion, and gender. You can find it here: https://public.tableau.com/profile/ken.flerlage#!/vizhome/DiversityinCongress/DiversityofCongress

Ken Flerlage, September 11, 2016

1. I agree Congress should be more representative, but it brings up a few questions. Should people vote for someone based on their race/ethnicity? Is the fact that the communities who are underrepresented align pretty neatly with communities that historically vote in low numbers a factor?

2. Could you update the data to reflect recent elections?

1. I am hoping to do that, but will need to wait until all of the election results are finalized.