Political recruitment remains a contentious issue in American politics. To be a true democratic nation, some argue that American politics should better reflect American society as a whole which the  executive, legislative and judicial structures of American politics do not.


“It is clear that Congress is not, and never has been, a true cross-section of the American people.” (Grant)


Why is this so and on what data does Grant base his statement ?

members of Congress are usually above the average age of America’s population. This is because for the Senate, one has to be at least 30 years of age to be considered and for the House of Representatives at least 25 years of age. However, many Congressmen are above these two ages purely because a potential Senator/Representative would have needed years to build up a political reputation outside of Washington and it would take years for most potential incumbents to have built up the necessary financial backing. In January 1997, the average age of a Senator was 57.5 years and the average age for a Representative was 51.6 years. This gives an average age of 52.7 for a member of Congress.
there has been an increase in the number of women in Congress but this does not match their number in society. The 1996 elections resulted in 51 women being in the House compared to 29 in 1990. There are 435 Representatives in total. There were also 9 female senators in 1996 and only 2 in 1990. There are 100 senators in total. Therefore, women only make up just under 12% of the House and just 9% of the Senate despite being more than 50% of America’s population.
in Congress as a whole, there are 38 Black, 19 Hispanics and 5 Asian politicians. Black Americans represent 12% of America’s population and their representation in Congress is 9%. All but one of the Black politicians is Democrat. Hispanics make up 10% of America’s population and 4% of Congress.
Congress is dominated by Protestant politicians – 287 in total. However, compared to their total number in the population, Catholics are over-represented with 151 politicians. 35 Congressmen are Jews and 15 Mormons.
Congress was traditionally dominated by those who have served time in the legal profession. In 1993, 45% of Congressmen were lawyers by profession. Within America, law has always been a well rewarded profession from a financial point of view and a law background was deemed important to someone who wished to be a member of America’s legislative body. However, in the 105th Congress, the total number of lawyers declined to 225 and in the House of Representatives former lawyers were outnumbered by former businessmen and bankers for the first time. 33 senators were also from a business background.
the other main occupational groups are public service (a total of 126 in Congress ), education (87 in Congress), farmers (30 in Congress), real estate (28 in Congress) and journalists (21 in Congress). There is a noticeable lack of former manual workers in Congress or people with a trade union background. Many Representatives and Senators are very wealthy : over 25% of Congress are millionaires. This fact needs to be linked with the financing of elections which are practically out of the reach of most people who might want to get involved in politics.

The traditional view of Congressmen has been to see them as people who have well served their locality over the years and have been put forward by the local party machine to run for Congress. Once in Congress they were expected to remain loyal to their localities. ‘Old Washington’ Congressmen tended to come from rural small town communities.

‘New Washington’ Congressmen now tend to be self-starters who have not relied on the local party machine. They have been elected by primaries in which they were responsible for their own campaigns. Research has indicated that ‘New Washington’ politicians tend to be more ideological in their outlook, they are typically younger and they are concerned about influencing public policy. They are likely to be more cosmopolitan, better educated and well travelled. Today Congress “is dominated by political insurgents and independent entrepreneurs” (Lunch) and the way they work is very different from the days of ‘Old Washington’ where Congress was seen as a gentleman’s club that had legislative duties to carry out. In the late 1970’s there was a change in the make-up of Congress due to a large number of retirements. Younger Congressmen came in and they became more independent of the White House and their party leaders. Their voting behaviour became more unpredictable and their actions more aggressive. The accepted pattern of behaviour of being supportive to the White House went and the rebellious nature of Congress has remained on-and-off ever since.

Those in Congress have a far higher chance of re-election than potential new comers. In 1988, 97.5% of those seeking to be re-elected were. Only 6 out of 408 were defeated and three of these had had well publicised problems. This started a debate about the composition of Congress and the whole democratic nature of American politics that has continued to this day. 88% of Congressmen are said to have ‘safe’ seats and nearly 20% have, at present, no obvious sound opposition to them.

Since the 1990 elections there has been a growing number of retirements from office. In the 1992 election, a record 65 House members stood down and 8 Senators. A similar pattern occurred in 1994 and 1996. This has allowed more open races but the ability to get elected still depends on the financial clout a candidate for office has and the statistics for the re-election of incumbents is still high. Proportionately more freshmen are being elected to Congress now but the figures are dwarfed by those for re-election. In the 1996 election, 358 House incumbents were re-elected and 21 were defeated while in the Senate election one senator failed to be re-elected out of 20.

There were 110 freshmen in the House in 1992, 86 in 1994 and 74 in 1996. Though this would indicate that Congress is opening itself up to the population as a whole, those who are being elected usually following a familiar pattern : white, educated and from a moneyed background. Though there has been evidence in recent years that this pattern is declining in its accuracy, the trend remains the same. The number of women and minority groups in Congress does not tally with their statistical representation in America as a whole and might be one of the reasons why the number of minorities who do not vote in any elections seems to be rising. Why bother to vote in a system that does not allow you to be fully represented?


The significance of incumbency 


Politicians in office hold many advantages over those who seek to get into office. It is no longer true that a weak Republican president is going to damage the chances of an incumbent Republican Representative due for re-election. Recent research indicates that voters effectively split their voting principles during elections : for a national election they look at national issues; for regional (be they state or local elections) they look at state/local issues. Hence the growth of ticket splitting.

Incumbents have vast resources open to them which are not available to challengers (unless they have access to vast sums of money). Pressure groups have increasingly contributed to an incumbent purely because he/she is in office regardless of the party that they represent. Representation is the key to the door of influencing policy, so why support someone who has little chance of winning an election ? In 1994, 72% of PAC’s money went on supporting incumbents.

Those in office may also have access to money not spent at the last election which can be invested in a future one. This cannot be done by a challenger. Incumbents have the following advantages over challengers :

they are known in their districts – that is the job of the staff for those incumbents within those districts; advertise the doings of the man who holds office.
they can claim experience of Washington politics.
they may hold positions on Congressional committees which adds to their status.
they have staff both in their districts and in Washington who can do the day-to-day chores for them – especially advertising their achievements.
they also have “franking privileges”. This is the right of a Representative to send free of charge six mass mailings a year to their constituents as well as an unlimited amount of free mail individually addressed and sent first class. The advantages that this gives an incumbent over challengers is vast. These mail shots are used to inform potential voters what a Representative has been doing for them in Washington and how there are going to benefit from it. In 1990 this service cost the tax payer $114 million. George Bush spoke about ending or reforming this privilege in 1989 though nothing came of it.
state legislatures are responsible for drawing up electoral boundaries. If they are dominated by the same party as the Senator and/or Representative and they have a good relationship, an element of gerrymandering might take place to ensure that incumbents are at an advantage over a challenger with regards to where electoral boundaries are drawn. When elections take place, the legislatures often claim to be independent of partisan views, of course !!

Senatorial elections do give incumbents an advantage over challengers but they are more robustly fought as there are only 50 elections and those who do challenge know that they will have to spend a vast sum on that challenge and tend to come to the contest well prepared and suitably financed. Also the election covers a whole state and local influence and the potential knowledge by the locals of a Representative, would not be as true for a Senator. 

However, as with Representatives, the incumbent senators do have the advantages in terms of making a name for yourself while in office (“this is what I have actually done………what has she/he actually done other than speak the words……..?”); they have had time to build up a team to represent them in their states and they will have the choice of those who wish to get involved in politics; as stated, PAC’s are unlikely to finance someone who is unknown at a state political level though challengers are likely to have access to finances themselves; incumbents are likely to know more about how to handle the media and have more connections within the media, especially television; some senators might hold important committee positions within the Senate which would give them status if that position is well used.