Congress' Changing Face Could Affect Policy

Nov. 10, 2006 — -- Slowly but surely, Congress is starting to mirror the nation in the gender, ethnic and religious makeup of its members.

And the changing face of the House and Senate may have an impact on legislation, putting a renewed focus on domestic policy.

Although white Christian men continue to dominate Capitol Hill, there are more women and Jews in Congress as a result of Tuesday's midterm election. The number of Hispanic and black lawmakers remains unchanged, but a few are poised to take leadership positions on important committees in the House.

"The changing makeup of Congress will have more of an impact on domestic policy," says Regina P. Branton, a political science professor at Rice University. "Issues such as Social Security and raising the minimum wage will be back on the table. And it will be interesting to see how the immigration reform debate plays out. It's going to be hard for Bush to push the guest-worker program with a Democratic House and Senate, [which includes] some prominent Latino lawmakers."

Although a lawmaker's gender, ethnicity and religion may have some effect on the priorities of the 110th Congress, they likely won't play as much of a role as party affiliation.

"You can't deny that women bring with them a different set of priorities and a different perspective, but I don't necessarily think that those can dominate," says Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution. "There are Republican women who have far different positions than Democratic women."

Most experts don't expect too much of an impact on Iraq war policy. Although many of the new faces in Congress oppose the war, those lawmakers don't want it to look as if they're abandoning the troops.

"They're in this tough position. If they deny appropriations, that comes across badly to voters back home," says Tenpas.

In addition to Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., making history as the first woman speaker of the House, women made a net gain of five seats, three in the House and two in the Senate. Among them are Democrats Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona.

In total, there are 86 women in Congress, 70 in the House and 16 in the Senate, which constitutes 16 percent of lawmakers. (Women make up 50.8 percent of the U.S. population, according to the 2004 census.)

To offer some perspective on the sea change on Capitol Hill, consider that when Pelosi was first elected to Congress in 1986, she was one of 12 women in the House.

"It's historic," says Karen White, national political director of Emily's List, a political group of pro-abortion rights women. "Voters are clearly seeing women as agents of change who will reach across party lines to get the job done and ... focus on the issues that matter to them."

Jewish politicians also increased their numbers, from 11 to 13 in the Senate and 26 to 30 in the House. And a new precedent was set with the election of the first Muslim to Congress, with Democrat Keith Ellison winning his race in Minnesota.

One Asian-American member was added to the House, making a total of six.

Though the number of Hispanic and black legislators remains unchanged, six are on track to take over important committees in the newly Democratic House.

Rep. Nydia Velasquez, D-N.Y., is in line to become chairman of the House Small Business Committee. Rep James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., could become House majority whip, the third-ranking leadership position in the House. Others include Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., on Judiciary; Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., on Homeland Security; Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald, D-Calif., on House Administration; and Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y., on the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

The congressional black caucus stays the same at 43: in the House, because three members left office and three were elected; in the Senate, because two prominent candidates -- Rep. Harold E. Ford, D-Tenn., and Maryland Republican Michael S. Steele -- lost their bids, leaving Barack Obama, D-Ill., as the only black senator. Although blacks make up 13 percent of the population, they represent only 8 percent of Congress.

And though Hispanics are the fastest-growing demographic group in the country, their numbers haven't changed much in Congress, with 23 in the House and three in the Senate. Hispanics make up almost 15 percent of the population, but they represent only 5 percent of Congress.

"We have to make progress in running Hispanic candidates in non-Hispanic districts," Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, tells the Associated Press.

"We need to show non-Latinos that Latinos can provide effective leadership for everybody," Vargas says.