Congress: The People's Branch?

6d. Who Is in Congress?

Campaign Trail
Congressional candidates must visit with thousands of potential voters to show their compassion and to demonstrate their strength as leaders.

A paunchy, older, silver-haired man with no facial hair wearing an ill-fitting dark suit. This is the image evoked in the minds of many Americans when they try to picture a Representative or Senator. This stereotype is actually grounded in truth, although the makeup of Congress has changed a great deal in the past few decades.

Personal Characteristics

Senators and Representatives come from all parts of the United States, but they do not reflect a true cross section of America. Overall, members of Congress tend to be older, wealthier, and better educated than those they represent. Nearly half of them are lawyers, and a large number come from business, banking, and education. Most of them are married with children, and about 60% are Protestants. Nearly all went to college, and many have advanced degrees as well.

However, this mix has changed considerably in recent years. For example, the 106th Congress (1999-2001) had 58 female Representatives and 9 female Senators. Although this does not reflect the ratio of the general population, it represents big increases over past years. The number of African American Representatives has also increased significantly, and there is a growing number of Representatives from other ethnic minorities.


Pennsylvania Avenue 1895
This picture was taken on Pennsylvania Avenue in 1895, showing a gritty winter view of the nation's capital.

For the first 50 years after the ratification of the Constitution, Representatives and Senators usually only served for short periods of time. Travel was difficult, and before air-conditioning and the massive swamp-draining that improved the comfort of Washington, D.C., the nation's capital was a pretty miserable town. Most served one or two terms and returned home to take local or state level office. Perhaps they had been rewarded with a federal judgeship. Today many Representatives and Senators are reelected as incumbents repeatedly.

As career politicians, members actually live in two worlds. They must work with party leaders, colleagues, and lobbyists in Washington, as well as maintaining contact with their constituents at home. Most travel back to their home districts many times during the year. They give speeches, have meetings, discuss problems, and observe with their own eyes the needs of their district or state. Most have staffs in both places, and no matter which place they are, they must keep up with what is going on in the other.

Pay and Perks

Congress pay
Legislators dictate congressional salaries, and authorize pay raises for the incoming Congress.

How well are members of Congress paid?. Of course, the best part is that they get to set their own salaries. In the year 2021, the basic yearly salary for members of Congress was $174,000. Congressional leaders, like the Speaker of the House and the Majority and Minority leaders, get more.

So members of Congress are among the top 1% of the nation's wage earners. However, they are prohibited by law from supplementing their income through honoraria or paid speaking engagements. Also, legislators have expenses that most people do not have — two homes, entertainment of constituents, and campaign debt. And then of course, they do have some pretty big responsibilities.

Members of Congress are sometimes criticized for the number of perquisites — or perks — that they receive. For example, each member has an office, a large expense account, generous travel allowances, pension plans, and low-cost health coverage. They even have free postal service, a perk known as the franking privilege.

They come from all over the country. They still tend to be older white males, and most of them have been in office for a number of years already. They are well paid, but they have a great many important responsibilities. The calling of public service certainly has its benefits, but political life generates headaches that many Americans would just as soon do without.

On the Web
John Quincy Adams
While many U.S Congressmen have become Presidents, only one President has ever gone back to being a Congressman. John Quincy Adams left office only to return to Washington as a House member, where he was known as "Old Man Eloquent" and fought tirelessly in defense of civil liberties and against slavery, until his death in 1848.
Salaries of Members of Congress:
One fringe benefit of being in Congress is establishing the congressional salary. With each new budget plan, federal legislators can add a pay increase for the incoming Congress. The Congressional Research Service provides this detailed analysis of congressional compensation and the legislative history of Congress granting (and occasionally voting against) raising its members pay.
Franking Commission: What Is the Frank?
Congress members have always been granted the privilege of free postage. The Senate's website highlights that the practice, called franking, has fallen in and out of favor through the years. Occasional abuses, such as mailing a horse on the taxpayers' dime, make franking an issue of continual debate.
Hiram Rhodes Revels: The First Black Senator
Mississippi's Hiram Revels was elected to fill the seat vacated by the defeated Confederate General Jefferson Davis in 1870. Revels went on to fight for the rights of blacks on issues of labor and school integration. The office of the historian of the House of Representatives presents this brief biography of the Senator and his controversial years in public office.
Women in Congress: Congresswomen's Biographies
While women are still a minority in Congress, their contributions to legislation since they first entered in 1917 are vast and vital. The Office of the Clerk of the House of Representatives has compiled biographies and photos of every American Congresswoman. More information on women's suffrage and other movements are also conveniently linked.
Common Cause
The grassroots organization Common Cause is a dedicated, non-partisan group that monitors many aspects of government and takes an active role in maintaining civic control over politics. Their slogan is "Holding Power Accountable," which they do by following the finances and the legislation of our leaders.

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