The Changing Face of Congress: More Entrepreneurs and Minorities

For the first time since 1953, when the Congressional Quarterly began tracking the professions of members, business people outnumber lawyers in the US House of Representatives.

The little-noted shift in the balance of professions is seen by some as a subtle but substantive change in the mind-set of those who craft the nation's laws.

"There's no question it makes a difference," says Nelson Litterest, manager of legislative affairs for the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), a small-business lobbying group. According to Mr. Litterest, 44 members of Congress are NFIB members. "These are individuals who've had to sign the front of a paycheck, who've had to figure out how to makes ends meet, who've had to live under the burdens placed on small business by the federal government."

This shift reflects, in part, the trends that underlie the Republican rise to power. But a comparison of the 105th Congress, elected last November, with Congress 10 years earlier also shows a remarkable evolution toward a legislative body more diverse than ever.

Congressional Quarterly research shows more House members are business people and bankers than lawyers: 181 to 172.

For Congress as a whole, 214 members list business or banking as their occupation, compared with 225 who say they are lawyers. (Another 28 are in real estate, while 39 are in agriculture.) That's a big change from 10 years ago, when 246 members were lawyers and 170 were in business or banking.

Another significant change over the past decade is the number of women and minorities in Congress. In 1987, 25 women were members, including two senators. This year there are 62 women, including nine in the Senate. Both senators from two states - California and Maine - are women.

"We are now at critical mass," says Robin Read of the National Foundation for Women Legislators, quoting futurist Patricia Aburdene. "As we enable women to run and find ways for them to ask for funds ... they will win.... The wonderful 62 women members of Congress are incredible role models."

Blacks have also made gains. There are now 38 African-American members of Congress, including a senator, Carol Mosley-Braun (D) of Illinois, and a black Republican in the House, J.C. Watts of Oklahoma. Ten years ago there were 23 black members, all Democrats, with none in the Senate. While there were no black women in the House 10 years ago, today there are 11.

The number of Hispanics has edged up, from 14 House members a decade ago to 18 this year. But while all the Hispanic members in 1987 were men, and all but one were Democrats, the 105th Congress includes three women Hispanics and two Republicans.

"What you're finding in communities is that people are finding ways to participate in the electoral system," says Rep. Xavier Becerra (D) of California, chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. "America is coming of age. Americans come in different colors and flavors. Whoever can best represent us will get elected."

Also notable is the decline in the number of members who have served in the military: 48 senators and 140 representatives, down from 70 senators and 216 representatives in the 1988 Congress.

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