Are African Americans Effectively Represented in Congress?

Article excerpt

Abstract

The authors relate the racial composition of districts to five measures of legislative activity and position in the 101st to 106th Congresses: bill introduction, colleague cosponsorship, bill passage, committee portfolio, and party leadership. The authors find that African American constituents generally are represented by less active and less well-positioned legislators on four of the five measures. They also explore the origin of these disparities. Two of the disparities (bill passage and party leadership) are partly explained by the tendency of districts with larger African American populations to be less electorally competitive. A third disparity (committee portfolio) is accounted for by the tendency of larger African American populations to be represented by African American members of Congress.

Keywords

Congress, African Americans, representation, political competition, legislative effectiveness

Are citizens represented equally in Congress? Political scientists have long noted that the malapportionment of the Senate means that some citizens have more influence than others in that chamber (Dahl 1956; Lee and Oppenheimer 1999). The roughly equal size of House districts since Wesberry v. Sanders (1964) largely averts this specific problem, but citizens still may not exert equal influence in the decisions of the chamber. The reason is that Representatives are not equally active and well positioned in the lawmaking process (e.g., Box-Steffensmeier and Grant 1999; Miquel and Snyder 2006). Certain legislators are more active than others in sponsoring bills, convincing colleagues to cosponsor them, and advancing them to passage. Some members of Congress (MCs) sit on key committees such as Ways and Means and Rules or hold positions in the party leadership, while others do not. This disparity among MCs, together with the uneven distribution of politically relevant groups of citizens across districts, creates the possibility that some groups are represented by more effective MCs than are other groups.

In this study, we relate the percentage of each district's population that is African American to the effectiveness of the district's legislator. We focus on African Americans because this group has struggled to have its policy preferences realized in government decisions (e.g., Guinier 1994; Hero 1998). This inequality is often attributed to this group's somewhat lower rate of political participation (Verba, Schlozman, and Brady 1995), the legacy of its exclusion from the political system (Kousser 1999), and the dearth of elected African American officials (Canon 1999; Tate 2003), among other factors. We examine another potential source of the unequal representation of African American constituents-less active and less well-positioned representatives. As we develop below, there are several theoretical reasons to expect that African Americans are disadvantaged in this way. Our initial contribution is simply to describe racial differences between citizens in the effectiveness of their MCs. Then, we examine whether any differences we uncover are attributable to African American citizens' greater likelihood of being represented by an African American MC or to African Americans' greater likelihood of living in uncompetitive districts.

Following many studies, we measure legislative activity in three ways: introducing bills, securing colleague cosponsorship, and seeing sponsored legislation pass the House (e.g., Frantzich 1979; Schiller 1995; Box-Steffensmeier and Grant 1999; Wawro 2000; Jeydel and Taylor 2003).1 In addition, we seek to tap into how well-positioned legislators are to influence the lawmaking process with measures of their committee assignments and whether they serve in their party's leadership. These are not the only dimensions of legislative effectiveness; indeed, representatives participate daily in a variety of other symbolic and substantive activities as they seek to represent their constituents. …