Who Gets to Congress?
Members of the House and Senate are predominantly middle-aged, white, Protestant, male
lawyers. If people with these characteristics all held similar opinions, Congress would be
radically unrepresentative on policy matters, but they do not. Of late, the number of blacks
and women in the House has been slowly increasing. More important is the proportions of
representatives serving several terms and occupying safe rather than
In 1869 the average representative had served only one term in Congress; by the 1950s over
half the representatives had served four or more terms. In the nineteenth century the federal
government was not very important, Washington was not a pleasant place in which to live,
and being a member of Congress did not pay well. Because the job is more attractive today,
one would expect more serious challenges; by 1970, however, over three-fourths of running
incumbents won with 60 percent or more of the vote. A degree of competition re-emerged in
House elections during the 1990s. This development has been attributed to re-districting
changes and to voters' anti-incumbency attitudes. Still, the vast majority of House incumbents
seeking reelection are successful. Senators are somewhat less secure; in fewer than half of
their races does the winner get 60 percent or more of the vote.
Why this is the case is a subject of controversy among scholars. One theory stresses that
voters are voting their party identification less and less and may therefore be voting for the
candidate whose name they recognize. Incumbents have extensive means of getting their
names known. Also, incumbents can use their powers to get (or may simply take credit for)
federal grants, projects, and protection for local interest groups.
Representatives are more likely to be not merely white, male, and senior in terms of years of
service, but also Democrats. This is because more voters consider themselves Democrats
than Republicans (though this is changing) and because the advantages of incumbency
(whatever they are) began to take effect after the Democrats gained control of Congress. In
only seven Congresses since the New Deal have the Democrats failed to control both houses
(1947-1948, 1953-1954, 1981-1982, 1983-1984, 1985-1986, 1995-1996, and 1997-1998).
Whether the Republicans will sustain their control of Congress is uncertain. The 1998
election is a midterm election, and so one would ordinarily expect the president's party to lose
seats, further helping the Republicans. However, Speaker Gingrich's 1997 ethics charges
and his controversial leadership may have alienated voters. If 1998 is unpredictable, though,
2000 is impossible to forecast.
Why Congressional Incumbents Win