Congress is older, more experienced; demographics do not match the nation

Today’s Congress is older and more experienced than it was a half-century ago, but the demographics of lawmakers on Capitol Hill fall far short of accurately representing the nation at large.

A new report by the independent Congressional Research Service (CRS) studied the makeup of a dozen separate Congresses since 1945, comparing the median age, education level, ethnicity and race, length of tenure, and gender of each.

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Though this Congress is more diverse than it's counterparts were 50 years ago, the CRS study found that women and minorities are still starkly underrepresented when compared to the nation’s population.

Nearly 51 percent of the people in the U.S. are women according to the 2010 census. But only 16.6 percent of the House and 15 percent of the Senate is made up of female lawmakers.

Those percentages are a marked gain, according to the report. Until 1991, women made up less than 5 percent of House members. The number of female members in both the House and Senate grew rapidly in the next decade, with women making up 13 percent of both chambers in 2001.

The percentage of women reached an all-time high of 17.3 percent in the lower chamber in the last Congress, according to the report.

Similarly, the number of non-white members of Congress did not rise above 5 percent in the House until 1981. In 1945, African-American lawmakers made up 0.5 percent of the House and Hispanics made up 0.2 percent.

At the beginning of this Congress, African-Americans represented 9.7 percent of the House’s population and 5.5 percent of the lower chamber identified as Hispanic.

At the start of the current Senate, 96 percent of its members were white, 2 percent were Hispanic and 2 percent were Asian American. No more than 1 percent of senators in each of the Congresses that the study looked at identified themselves as African-American or Native American.

The latest U.S. Census numbers identified 12.6 percent of the country as African-American or black, 16.3 percent as Hispanic and 72.4 percent as white.

The study also looked at the average age of members of Congress, finding that the current Congress is made up of a greater number of older lawmakers than in years past.

In the 112th Congress, the median age in the House was 57.2 years old, while the Senate’s median age was 61.4 years old. The lowest average ages in Congress were recorded in the 97th Congress, in 1945, when the average House lawmaker was 49 years old and the average senators was 51.7 years of age.

The average number of years of that a member of the House or Senate has served in their respective bodies has also steadily grown over the past five decades. At the start of the 112th Congress, the median tenure of a House lawmaker was 9.8 years, or just less than five terms. The average number of years of service for Senators was 11.4, slightly less than two full Senate terms.

“In general, the average length of service of Representatives increased during the second half of the 20th century and early 21st century, from an average of 7.1 and 7.6 years of service in the 79th and 82nd Congresses to an average of 9.2 and 9.8 years of service in the 107th and 112th Congresses,” the report states.

Representatives and Senators: Trends in Member Characteristics Since 1945