Congress Set to Continue Rise in Diversity

The 113th Congress is likely to become the most racially and ethnically diverse in the nation's history, but the House of Representatives still is hardly reflective of the nation's population mix.

In the just-ending 112th Congress, 83 of 435 House seats (excluding delegates) and four of 100 Senate positions are held by people of color. At 16 percent, those 87 members of Congress reflect a 4 percent increase since 2000.

In February, R. Eric Petersen of the Congressional Research Service published results of a paper called "Representatives and Senators: Trends in Member Characteristics Since 1945" (pdf), showing that the racial mix of the 112th Congress, which concludes its two-year term in January, does not closely resemble the racial or ethnic percentage of the population, based on 2010 census data.

The 2010 census reported the white, non-Hispanic population at 72 percent, down 3 percent from 2000.

While Tuesday's elections may produce the most diverse Congress yet, perhaps the example of women's gains in public service shows that it may be many years before the House reflects the nation.

The plight of women in Congress shows that balance is not easily attained in the corridors of political power, and it may be the same for Americans of color.

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Beyond a short post-WWII reverse in trend since Montana's Jeanette Rankin became the first woman elected to Congress in 1917, more women take office each year.

However, in a nation now nearly 51 percent female, only 15 percent of the Senate and 16.6 percent of the House is led by women.

Some voters may consider gender, age, and race when evaluating a person's readiness to lead. But when it comes to mounting a race and winning a seat, history shows that the more determinative factors are schooling and money.

Members of Congress are more educated than the populace in general, Petersen writes in his report. And the average winning House campaign in 2010 cost more than $1.4 million, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics (the typical Senate winner spent nearly $10 million).

Only when more people of color have gained higher levels of education and income — and facility in the art and economics of campaigning — will the august chambers become more racially and ethnically balanced.

Four states — California, Hawaii, New Mexico, and Texas — have a minority-majority population heading into Tuesday's elections. Currently those states hold 102 total seats in Congress, represented by 25 racial- or ethnic-minority incumbents.

In years to come, expect more people of color on the ballot as various groups work to develop candidates for office. For example, the NALEO Education Fund reports that 373 Latino legislative candidates are running for state offices, and in the past year the New American Leaders Project trained 182 African, Asian, Caribbean, and Latino immigrants for a run at office, from school board to the U.S. Senate.

Among challengers seeking office: John Arvantes, born in Greece (New Jersey, 11th House District; Shmuley Boteach, a second-generation Iranian (New York, 9th House District); and Rita Zak, a native of Israel (Illinois, 7th House District).

In recent annual reports, the Congressional Research Service has indicated the birthplaces of members of Congress:

107th Congress (2001-2003): Six  representatives were born in five countries: Cuba, Hungary, Japan, Netherlands, and Taiwan. No senators were born outside the U.S.

108th Congress (2003-2005)  Eight representatives were born in seven countries: Cuba, Hungary, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, Pakistan, and Taiwan.

109th Congress (2005-2007): Nine representatives and a senator were born in seven countries: Canada, Cuba, Hungary, Japan, Netherlands, Pakistan, and Taiwan.

110th Congress (2007-2009): Ten Representatives and a senator were born in seven countries Canada, Cuba, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, Pakistan, and Taiwan.

111th Congress (2009-2011): Twelve representatives and a senator were born in nine countries: Canada, Cuba, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, Pakistan, Peru, Taiwan, and Vietnam. 

112th Congress (2011-2013): Eight representatives and a senator were born in seven countries: Canada, Cuba, India, Japan, Pakistan, Peru, and Taiwan. Several were born to American citizens working or serving abroad.