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Members of Congress

By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on

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People elected -- and re-elected -- to Congress are usually lawyers, businesspeople and educators. Women and minorities are underrepresented in elective office, although their proportion in Congress has been rising. However, many women and minorities believe in descriptive representation. Descriptive representation is the idea that only members of one's group can represent one's interest.

Many states draw congressional districts to isolate areas where minorities are concentrated. This has led to an increase in minorities in Congress, but in 1993 the Supreme Court ruled this racial gerrymandering violated the rights of whites. The Supreme Court added that racial gerrymandering segregated communities rather than creating districts around contiguous communities.

Although elections offer voters the opportunity to express their approval or disapproval of congressional performance, voters rarely reject House incumbents. Although polls show that the public lacks confidence in Congress as a whole and supports term limits, most people are satisfied with their own particular legislator.

Incumbents have enormous advantages that help them keep their seats. For example:

  1. incumbents are generally much more attractive to PACs and find it easier to obtain funds for re-election campaigns.

  2. Incumbents usually have greater name recognition; they acquire this name recognition by using their franking privileges and building a reputation for handling casework.

  3. Gerrymandering during redistricting may also work to the benefit of an incumbent.

Senate races tend to be more competitive than House races; incumbency is less of an advantage in the Senate, partly because of the greater visibility of challengers in Senate races. When challengers do defeat incumbents, it is often the case that the previous election was close or the ideology and party identification of the state’s voters favor the challenger.

Members of Congress tend to be white, male professionals with college or graduate degrees. There are relatively few women and minority-group members in Congress. To remedy this situation, some people favor descriptive representation; others argue that devices such as racial gerrymandering discriminate unjustly against white candidates. Recent court decisions have dealt setbacks to racial gerrymandering.