117th U.S. Congress – reflects a changing face

The current Congress is the most racially and ethnically diverse ever. 

Overall, 124 lawmakers identify as Black, Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander or Native American – making up 23% of Congress, including 26% of the House of Representatives and 11% of the Senate. By comparison, when the 79th Congress took office in 1945, non-White lawmakers represented just 1% of the House and Senate.

Despite this growing racial and ethnic diversity, Congress remains less diverse than the nation as a whole: Non-Hispanic White Americans account for 77% of voting members in the new Congress, considerably more than their 60% share of the U.S. population.

About a century after Republican Jeannette Rankin of Montana became the first woman elected to Congress, there are 144 women in the national legislature, accounting for a record 27% of all members across both chambers. (This includes six nonvoting House members who represent the District of Columbia and U.S. territories, four of whom are women.)

The number of women in Congress is at an all-time high.

A record 120 women are currently serving in the House, accounting for 27% of the chamber’s total. There are 24 women in the Senate, one fewer than the record number of seats they held in the last Congress. In four states – Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire and Washington – both senators are women, down from six states in the previous Senate.

The House has seen slow but steady growth in the number of women members since the 1920s. Growth in the Senate has been slower: The Senate did not have more than three women serving at any point until the 102nd Congress, which began in 1991. And the share of women in Congress remains far below their share in the country as a whole (27% vs. 51%).

The number of Millennials and Gen Xers in Congress has risen slightly in recent years.

In the current Congress, 7% of House members, or 31 lawmakers, are Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996), up from 1% in the 115th Congress. A third of House lawmakers, or 144 members, are Gen X (born from 1965 to 1980), up from 27% two Congresses earlier.

This year saw the swearing-in of the first Millennial senator: Democrat Jon Ossoff of Georgia. The number of Gen X senators has gradually ticked up from 16 in the 115th Congress to 20 this year.

While younger generations have increased their representation in Congress in recent years, older generations still account for the majority of lawmakers across both chambers. Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) make up 53% of the House’s voting membership, in addition to 68 of the 100 senators.

The ranks of the Silent Generation (born between 1928 and 1945) have decreased in recent years, from 10%, or 42 members, at the start of the 115th Congress to 6%, or 27 members, in the current Congress.

The share of immigrants in Congress has ticked up but remains well below historical highs.

There are 18 foreign-born lawmakers in the 117th Congress, including 17 in the House and just one in the Senate: Mazie Hirono, a Hawaii Democrat who was born in Japan.

These lawmakers account for 3% of legislators, slightly higher than the share in other recent Congresses but below the shares in much earlier Congresses. In the 50th Congress of 1887-89, for example, 8% of members were born abroad. The current share of foreign-born lawmakers in Congress is also far below the foreign-born share of the U.S. as a whole, which was 13.6% as of 2019.

While the number of foreign-born lawmakers in the current Congress is small, more members have at least one parent who was born in another country. Together, immigrants and the children of immigrants account for at least 14% of the new Congress, a slightly higher share than in the last Congress (13%).

Far fewer members of Congress now have direct military experience than in the past.

In the current Congress, 91 members served in the military at some point in their lives – the lowest number since at least World War II, according to Military Times. There are more than twice as many Republican veterans (63) in the new Congress as Democrats (28). Equal shares of senators and representatives (17%) have served in the military. 

While the number and share of veterans in Congress overall have decreased, the newly elected freshman class includes 15 such lawmakers.

Looking at the longer term, there has been a dramatic decrease in members of Congress with military experience since the late 20th century. Between 1965 and 1975, at least 70% of lawmakers in each legislative chamber had military experience. The share of members with military experience peaked at 75% in 1967 for the House and at 81% in 1975 for the Senate.

While relatively few members of Congress today have military experience, an even smaller share of Americans do. In 2018, about 7% of U.S. adults had military experience, down from 18% in 1980, not long after the end of the military draft era.

The vast majority of members of Congress have college degrees. 

The share of representatives and senators with a college degree has steadily increased over time. In the 117th Congress, 94% of House members and all senators have a bachelor’s degree or more education. Two-thirds of representatives and three-quarters of senators have at least one graduate degree, too. In the 79th Congress (1945-47), by comparison, 56% of House members and 75% of senators had bachelor’s degrees.

The educational attainment of Congress far outpaces that of the overall U.S. population. In 2019, around a third (36%) of American adults ages 25 and older said they had completed a bachelor’s degree or more education, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

Congress has become slightly more religiously diverse over time.

The current Congress includes the first two Muslim women ever to serve in the House and has the fewest Christians (468) in 12 Congresses analyzed by Pew Research Center dating back to 1961. Despite this decline, Christians are still overrepresented in Congress in proportion to their share of the public: Nearly nine-in-ten congressional members are Christian (88%), compared with 65% of U.S. adults overall.

By contrast, religious “nones” are underrepresented in Congress in comparison with the U.S. population. While 26% of Americans say they are atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” just one lawmaker – Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz. – says she is religiously unaffiliated.

Also, Jewish members are still overrepresented in Congress in proportion to their share of the public: 6% of congressional members are Jewish, compared with 2.4% of U.S. adults overall.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s