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How ‘representative’ is the 118th Congress?

The figures around gender, race and religion are notably different from those of the broader population.
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WASHINGTON — After days of false starts, the House voted Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., as its new speaker, and the 118th Congress was sworn in. But the demographic makeup of the new House and Senate may raise some questions about how truly “representative” of the nation they are. The figures around gender, race and religion are notably different from those of the broader population.

Let’s start with the most obvious difference, gender. Women make up about half of the workforce in the U.S., and they make up more than half of the U.S. population overall, but they still lag in representation in Congress.

And they aren’t close to half of all members. When everyone is seated, women will make up less than one-third of all the members of the House and the Senate in the 118th Congress, about 28%, according to data from researcher Stephen Wolf. That is a record for women.

There are a lot of potential reasons, of course. The doors of all workplaces didn’t open to women at the same time, and politics, as a profession, was especially late to welcome them in. Remember, there has never been a female president, and 18 states have never elected female governors.

The gap is noteworthy and problematic in terms of having voices and views heard. When a group makes up more than half of the country’s population, it should probably make up more than 30% of its primary legislative body.

There are similar gaps around race and ethnicity. The percentage of the 118th Congress that is white and non-Hispanic is much higher than the figure for the nation as a whole.

Roughly three-quarters of the new members are non-Hispanic whites, who make up less than 60% of the U.S.’ overall population, according to the U.S. Census.

The percentage of African American lawmakers is also below the national average, but not by that much — 11% of members, compared with 14% of the population. However, the Hispanic percentage in the new Congress is much lower than in the nation’s population — 10%, compared with 19% nationally. And the percentage of members who are Asian or Pacific Islanders is also about half the national figure — 3% to 6%.

The Native American figure is in line with the national number — 1% of the members and 1% of the overall population.

Beyond race and gender, however, there are other significant ways the Congress doesn’t look like the U.S. at large. Consider faith and religion. More than 95% of the members in the new Congress claim religious affiliations, while less than 1% are unaffiliated, according to data from the Pew Research Center. Nationally, nearly 30% of Americans claim no religious affiliations.

A much higher percentage of the 118th Congress claims Christian affiliations than among the nation as a whole — 88%, compared with 63%. The new Congress also has a higher percentage of Jewish members than the nation as a whole — 6% to 2%.

The differences may be significant for a lot of voters, because religious identity (or lack thereof) can go to the heart of cultural debates and discussions of issues that touch on morality. One-third of Americans don’t feel that organized religion is part of their lives, and the numbers suggest they don’t have much of a voice in Congress when such issues come to the fore.

To be clear, the two parties aren’t the same on all those differences. Congressional Democrats are a more diverse lot in many ways.

Democrats in the House and the Senate are much less likely to be men than their Republican counterparts — 59% versus 85%. They are also much less like to be white and non-Hispanic — 59% to 89% for Republicans. (Note: That 59% matches the national population figure.) And three-quarters of Democratic members in the new Congress identify as Christian, higher than the national figure. Among Republicans, the Christian figure is 99%.

And along with all those differences, there has been one other change of note in Congress over time. In the last 40 years, the members of Congress have gotten older on average.

The average age in the new House is 58, nine years older than the average age 40 years ago. In the Senate, the average age is 64, 10 years above the average age in 1983, according to NBC News research.

The Senate of the 118th Congress will be the second oldest ever seated going by the average age, and the House will be the third oldest ever.

In some ways, the numbers are in line with census data showing a graying nation. But they could also raise questions about an age gap between Washington’s lawmakers and the nation’s millennial generation, who are the largest segment of the nation’s citizenry, and Gen Z, the third-largest bloc.

Of course, the differences between Congress and the general population aren’t just about the members. The new representatives and senators were sent here after having been elected by voters. Some of the differences between the members and the U.S. population may be due to how House district lines are drawn or to the spread of different voter groups across communities and who runs for office.

But regardless of the reason, when the nation’s lawmakers come from very different backgrounds and experiences than the broader national population, it’s not surprising that some voters wonder how truly “representative” they are.