The Minority Legislative Gap

Despite increasing representation in the U.S. Congress, minority representatives still lag behind their white colleagues in legislative activity — and minority-majority districts set up to increase their power may contribute to the lag.

When it comes to increasing diversity in the U.S. Congress, the representation rates of minorities have gotten better in recent years. Just how much better depends on your evaluation of minority representation.

Over the past two decades, the number of African Americans in the House of Representatives has grown from 27 to 41, and the number of Hispanic representatives has grown from 11 to 22. While this lags the groups’ overall share of the U.S. population (12.8 percent for blacks and 14.4 percent for Latinos, as compared with 9.4 percent and 5.1 percent in the House, respectively), it is getting closer, thanks in part to a growing number of majority-minority congressional districts.

Does this translate into increasing substantive representation for the concerns of blacks and Latinos in Congress?

Not necessarily, say two political scientists who have studied the legislative behavior of minorities in the U.S. House of Representatives. Professors Michael S. Rocca and Gabriel R. Sanchez, both of the University of New Mexico, report in the January issue of American Politics Research that, over the last two decades, both blacks and Latinos have sponsored or co-sponsored legislation at roughly 75 percent of the rate of their white colleagues.

This is significant, the professors argue, because legislating is a key aspect of being a legislator. If black and Latino members are introducing and co-sponsoring fewer bills, how effectively are they advancing the concerns of minorities?

“The academic side of me was not surprised, based on everything that’s been written about blacks and Latinos in Congress over the past 20 years,” said Rocca. “But a more personal side of me was shocked.”

One reason to think that minorities are less active is a line of scholarship that describes Congress as a “racialized institution” in which ethnic minorities, because of their smaller numbers and limited history of participation, remain on the outskirts of the networks of power.

“You’ve heard of the good-old-boy phenomenon,” explained Sanchez. “Like many institutions, like Fortune 500 companies, the power players in Congress who decide how the agenda gets shaped tend to be nonminority, and their interests and backgrounds and experiences are disconnected from the average minority. There’s something like a glass ceiling that provides an obstacle to minorities having more influence, because they’re not part of that network.”

One possible — and controversial — implication of these findings, Sanchez notes, is that if Congress really is a racialized institution as the sponsorship and co-sponsorship numbers suggest, majority-minority districts may not lead to the most effective representation for minorities.

“There’s a lot of literature on descriptive representation about the need to have diversity in Congress, because it’s important for Hispanics to see Hispanic representatives,” Sanchez said. “But (our findings) might lead you to ask whether it would be better for a heavily Latino district to have a non-Latino representative — if that might be more effective. It might cause you to rethink the value of descriptive representation.”

Such a rethinking would be quite significant because it goes against several decades of efforts to get more minority members into national office. Sanchez, however, wonders whether such efforts failed to consider the realities of congressional behavior that make it harder for minority members to actually advance the causes of their constituents. “If they’re less active in co-sponsoring and sponsoring bills,” he said, “it means they’re less responsive to their districts.”

The professors also investigated the sponsorship and co-sponsorship activities of female legislators, since received wisdom on Congress suggests that, in addition to being a “racialized institution,” Congress is a “gendered institution” in which men dominate. But women actually sponsor and co-sponsor more legislation than men. In part, Rocca and Sanchez argue, this is because women are not clustered into specific districts but spread out across both parties, giving the leadership of both parties more incentives to make sure female lawmakers are active participants.

One thing that jumped out in the professors’ analysis was the difference in the minority-white legislation gap depending on which party controlled Congress. In Republican-controlled Congresses, African-American members sponsored, on average, 11.4 bills; Hispanic-Americans sponsored, on average, 10.4 bills; and whites sponsored, on average, 14.8 bills.

Under the Democrats (back before the Republicans took over in 1995; the scholars haven’t analyzed the current congress yet), whites sponsored, on average, 16.7 bills; African Americans sponsored, on average, 14.8 bills; and Latinos sponsored, on average, 17 bills (although a significant part of that was the work of one particularly active congressman in the early 1990s, current New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat).

This makes sense, the scholars say, because most minorities in Congress are Democrats (85 percent of Latinos and 97 percent of blacks). When Democrats are in power, minorities are closer to the center of power.

Additionally, because many of these members come from heavily Democratic majority-minority districts, they lean toward the liberal end of the political spectrum. So issues they might like to legislate on, such as redistributive tax policy, social welfare and civil rights, are so far from what the Republican leaders would consider that perhaps they see no point in wasting their effort. Instead, they do what they can in other areas, like making floor speeches or focusing on constituent services. (The professors also didn’t make judgments about the “quality” or import of the bills introduced, only the raw number.)

“If you think about it strategically,” said Rocca, “the interests that minorities typically represent aren’t going to be well represented on the Republican agenda. So, if you have no chance that a bill is going to pass, you won’t bother. Why go through all that work if it is not going to go anywhere?”

Now that Democrats are back in the majority, both African Americans and Latinos are in prominent positions in the House. Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y., now heads the powerful Committee on Ways and Means; John Conyers, D-Mich., heads the Judiciary Committee; and Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, heads the Intelligence Committee.

Will this translate into better substantive representation of minorities? The professors have some doubts. Leadership also means compromise, and compromise may mean putting onto the back burner more controversial issues that minorities tend to care most about. “Now that they are party leaders, they are getting pressure from other areas,” Rocca said.

But Sanchez remains hopeful. “We’re wondering, if you look at this 20 years from now, whether minorities will reach a critical mass in Congress,” he said. “The rates overall are increasing substantially, and if they continue at that pace, I think they’ll reach a critical mass enough in Congress so that they’ll no longer be disadvantaged.”