The 116th Congress Is the Most Diverse Ever. How Will That Affect Legislation?

Research shows that having more women, more people of color, and more LGBTQ people makes for a more productive, bipartisan, and responsive legislature.
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Representative Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) joins her fellow House Democratic women for a portrait in front of the U.S. Capitol on January 4th, 2019, in Washington, D.C.

Representative Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) joins her fellow House Democratic women for a portrait in front of the U.S. Capitol on January 4th, 2019, in Washington, D.C.

The 116th Congress is our most diverse yet. On Thursday, more women were sworn in on Capitol Hill than ever before—and many were women of color who broke records both in the legislature and in their home states.

Making history is important in and of itself, but these leaders offer more than cultural representation: If women's previous efforts are any guide, their presence will also have a tangible impact on legislation. Overall, research shows that having more women, more people of color, and more LGBTQ people makes for a more productive, bipartisan, and responsive legislature.

Women of Color Advocate for Marginalized Groups

Representation matters—and, historically, women and people of color have focused on issues that affect the most marginalized groups in American society.

"A number of studies show that when women are in elected office, they tend to bring different perspectives to the table—[they're] more likely to represent women's interests and represent marginalized groups," says Jean Sinzdak, associate director of the Center for American Women and Politics. By tracking policy, the Center has found that women of color focus more on education and health care than any other group. Women in general also introduce more bills than men do about "civil rights, liberties, and forgotten minorities," writes Breena Coates, professor of management at California State University–San Bernardino, in the book Why Congress Needs Women.

As the Democrats set their new agenda, many newly elected women of color have already begun to push for policies addressing issues that disproportionately affect vulnerable populations, such as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's (D-New York) Green New Deal, which takes on climate change.

Female Legislators Are Better Dealmakers

Research also shows women introduce more legislation, work more with other women, and are more likely to reach across the aisle for support—suggesting that "women get shit done" is more than a slogan. In 2015, the political analysis start-up Quorum found that the average female senator co-sponsored 171.08 bills with a member of the opposite party, many of them women, while the average man co-sponsored 129.87. Overall, the average woman introduced 26 more bills than her male counterpart.

But as many women know, this hard work is not always rewarded. A 2018 study in Political Behavior found that "women must introduce twice as much legislation as men to see the probability of challenger emergence decrease to a level that is indistinguishable from that of men." Meaning, the extra effort and dedicated staff only serves to equal the playing field—and, sometimes, not even that.

Many barriers to entry and a history of discrimination have made bipartisanship necessary among women. Sinzdak points to regular dinners, where the women of the Senate meet not to strategize, but "break bread"—a tradition that began in the 1990s at California Senator Dianne Feinstein's home, Politico reports. "Women have traditionally been left out of male circles of power. A lot of normal networking happens on golf courses and in clubs and old boys networks," she says. "What we've seen is this is an answer to that."

Women Make the Legislative Process More Transparent

In addition to making deals, female members of Congress also tend to be more progressive and place greater emphasis on transparency in the legislative process, Sinzdak says.

But one part of Congress will not benefit from this advantage: the Republican Party. Unlike the Democrats, the number of Republican women in Congress has been decreasing, not increasing; in 2019, 106 Democratic women will serve, while Republicans elected only 21. This trend will likely continue as the party becomes more polarized, studies show. In the meantime, the new Congress must put its bipartisanship to the test to solve the ongoing crisis over the government shutdown.

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