Does Congress as a Body Truly Represent the Average American
A Critical Look at the Current State of Congress
The question of whether Congress is representative is one that most Americans don’t think twice about. After all, Congress filled with its Congressmen and Senators was designed to be representative of the people in their districts and states. The fact of the matter is that there are other motivations behind the actions Congress takes. While they might want to represent the people, they also represent their own interests, as well as the interests of their sponsors. In addition, Congress as a whole does not accurately represent the demographics of the people. So while members of Congress may take actions to ensure that they are reelected, I do not believe that they represent the people to the best of their ability or accurately.
Congress members are elected by the people in their respective states and districts. They then represent the interests of the people who elected them into office, trying to pass laws and raise money for issues that concern their constituents. Legislators interact with their constituents through casework, which benefits constituents when legislators are able to get things done that they couldn’t get done on their own. On the flip side, “casework can take a legislator’s time away from his or her legislative responsibility” (American Democracy Now). So while Congressmen are trying to do a good thing and help their constituents (even if it is to help secure votes for future elections), they are also doing a disservice to the people they are serving by ignoring national issues that some would argue are of much greater importance.
While Congressmen are attempting to represent the people who voted them into office, they also represent their own interests. In 2016, the Senate and House spent a combined $19.4 million of taxpayers' money to pay for their travels (Taxpayers fund a first-class congressional foreign travel boom). This amount of money is ludicrous, and while some members of Congress curb their spending by taking military transport, the taxpayers are still paying for their hotel rooms and transport in country. And this amount includes transportation and hotel rooms for the Congressional Aids that are traveling with their Congressmen. And while they would like the taxpayers to believe that these trips are all under an official capacity, “some senators and representatives travel for fun at government expense under the guise of conducting committee investigation, a practice known as junketing.” Many of these trips involved going to desirable vacation places like Hawaii, Paris, and Italy (Democracy for the Few). Granted, not all of them were paid by taxpayers as they were also paid for by private sponsors, but in a way that makes it so much worse.
One would think that it would be illegal for sponsors to pay for things such as trips that are clearly vacations. Or at the very least, it would be highly regulated. However, “the donations that lobbyists make to congressional campaigns are legal as long as there is no explicit promise of official favors in exchange for the money” (Democracy for the Few). Instead, as long as the agreement is implicit, it is fine for sponsors to donate money for to sway legislators to vote a certain way. This was especially seen when the Congress members “responsible for spending billions of dollars on the F-22 fighter plane and related military hardware... which the Pentagon did not want—received over $1.3 million from weapons builders” (Democracy for the Few). Congress gets to approve or deny military budgets, but if the Pentagon claims that they do not need something, shouldn’t Congress listen as they are spending the taxpayers’ money?
There are 96 members of Congress who are former military, which is down considerably from the time after the Vietnam War where more than three-fourths of Congressmen had some sort of military experience (Veterans in the 116th Congress, by the numbers). This means that 19% of senators, and 18% of Congressmen have direct military experience (the changing face of Congress in 6 charts). That is not to diminish the number of people in this Congress that have served, as it is still way above the national average. But it does call into question about whether a Congress who has never served in the military can make decisions about military funding. And while 96 members of Congress have served, the question also becomes have they served recently enough to know what our military needs today. Those who served in the Vietnam and Korean War sacrificed immensely, but those wars happened more than 60 years ago. Is the technology used and needed today by our soldiers the same?
This is not the only way that Congress is out of touch with the people they are trying to serve. Congress is also misrepresentative of the United States in terms of gender. In the Senate, there are 25 women, whereas in the House there are 102, which is up considerably from previous years (116th Congress by Party, Race, Gender, and Religion). While these numbers are up considerably from the 110th Congress, where only 15% of House members were women (compared to today’s 24%) (The changing face of Congress in 6 charts), they are nowhere near achieving equal representation in Congress. This is important because certain women’s issues can only be truly activated and properly represented by other women. Such women’s issues include rights to birth control, abortion, and the pay gap.
Congress also has a disproportionately high number of people with college degrees compared to the American public. While only 33.4% of Americans have a bachelor degree or higher (Census: More Americans have college degrees than ever before), 96% of House members have a degree, and 100% of Senate members have a degree (the changing face of Congress in 6 charts). One would think that having a college degree would be a good thing, but if Congress is supposed to be representative of the people they serve, then it would make sense if they were less educated and therefore could understand the struggles of the average American.
Education also goes hand in hand with the income Americans make. The average American makes less than $50,000 a year. In comparison, “the median net worth of a Senator [is] $3.2 million, versus $900,000 for members of the House of Representative” (The typical US Congress member is 12 times richer than the typical American household). How can Congress members who earn so much more than the average American, and have such a high net worth, understand how their constituents are struggling to make ends meet, despite the raised minimum wage? The problem with our Congressmen and women earning so much money is that is that they lose touch with the problems that their constituents face, especially when those problems involve a recession that said Congressmen did not feel the effects of. It’s important that our Congress knows exactly what they are fighting for, which is something that they can’t know unless they have experienced it in some way.
Health care is one of the hot topics currently in debate in Congress. Republicans wish to repeal the Obama Care program, whereas Democrats wish to give health care to all, including undocumented immigrants. While now members of Congress are covered by the Affordable Care Act, they used to be covered by FEHBP which was better for them, but wouldn’t cover 20 million other Americans (Here’s how much members of Congress pay for their health insurance). In other words, legislators do not have free health insurance, like many people believe, it’s just a lot cheaper, and members of Congress can choose to go to a military facility in the D.C. area for free treatment. A luxury that many Americans wished they had when E.R. bills are upwards of $11,000 without health insurance, simply for some blood work and an I.V.
There are two major parties in Congress: Democrats and Republicans. While there are more political parties available to be affiliated with, only seven of the 435 members of the House of Representatives labeled themselves as being something other than the two main parties (American Democracy Now). The problem with that, is that House members especially tend to follow the party line on issues. This is because they represent small districts where the political opinions tend to be the same, one way or the other. Senators used to be “more willing than their House counterparts to compromise and to take a more moderate stance” (American Democracy Now) because they represent large states, with diverse political opinions. However, that is no longer the case as the Senate becomes more and more partisan.
While this essay is highly critical of Congress, and the way that it represents its citizens, it should be noted that not all legislators are corrupt, and that most try their best to help the people they serve. That said, the few corrupt individuals ruin it, and make it so that voters cannot trust their own government to do the right thing.
There are many issues that contribute to the lack of diversity in Congress as seen above. The problem is that solutions seem all too far out of reach, and nobody wants to admit that the current system isn’t working until there is a better system available. If a solution is to be reached, the best thing to do would be to start by trying to fix some of the problems listed above. The solutions do not need to be complex or permanent, but rather something that can temporarily fix the problem until a more permanent solution can be found.
The practice of junketing should be made illegal, or at the very least highly monitored. Sponsors should hardly be paying for a legislator’s private vacation, nor should the taxpayers. In the instances of special investigations, there should be insurances that the investigation is strictly necessary, and a way to hold a Congressmen accountable if it is not. If it is strictly necessary, measures should be taken to drive down costs, such as taking military transport and staying at cheap hotels. There should also be a limit to how many Congressional Aides can attend, because the taxpayers are paying for their stay too.
Sponsors and special interest groups are able to secure votes on issues by donating money, which is perfectly legal so long as there is no explicit deal. Taking this into account, special interest groups should not be able to donate to campaigns. Individual donations should be permitted, so long as a group’s name is not mentioned or implied in any way. Campaigns cost a lot of money, and by doing this, Congressmen and women will not be able to raise nearly as much as they had previously. Besides hopefully curbing some of the corruption, this also serves the purpose of making campaigns shorter. In the House, representatives are elected into office and are already running for the next election. By shortening campaign times, officials can hopefully focus on the things that they are supposed to be focusing on: national issues.
Equalizing Congress in terms of gender is something that will not be easily achieved. The best most fair way would to do so by encouraging young girls to run for office and helping women get the tools they would need to run. The less fair, but arguably more effective way would be to mandate that a certain number of seats in the House and in the Senate must be filled by women, which is something they do in corporations.
To argue that less people with college degrees should be in Congress is somewhat nonsensical as the nation needs its brightest to be forming its laws. That said, it would make sense if more Congressional Aides and others who worked closely with Congressmen had less education because they could offer their legislator a unique view into the majority of Americans. Of course, this means that the legislator would actually need to listen to their Aide, but that is an entirely different matter.
To make it truly fair, the most major component would be to minimize the pay gap between the average American, and members of Congress. Members should be earning the national average of $50,000 so that they are truly one with the people. They should also be unable to give themselves raises, because while that raise may only come into effect the next term, many members serve consecutive terms for many years. This also ties in with health insurance. Congressmen and women should have to pay just as much as the average American, and be unable to get free treatment, even if its in a military facility.
Lastly, and perhaps most important, there should not be only two parties in Congress. While other parties may run on occasion, they do not get the media coverage necessary to deliver their message and secure a win. This is important because everybody’s views should be represented, not just views in the dominant party. It should also be said that things may get done if it is not just a debate about who is a Democrat and who is Republican. In Europe, there are many major parties, representing both Europe as a whole, and the individual countries within it. This makes opinions more diverse, which is something desperately needed in the United States.
Congress may not currently accurately represent the United States, or her citizens, but that is something that could be easily changed on a temporary basis until a more permanent solution can be put into place. Americans should not settle for the current system simply because it has been around for many years. Instead, they should strive to make sure that it is their voice that is heard, and not the voice of corporate America.
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