How does a member of Congress compare to an average American?
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”
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The very first Congress in U.S. history met in New York City’s Federal Hall on March 4, 1789.
At the time, serving in Congress was both an honor and a hardship. Members received a pay of $6 per day, but traveling from their home states to New York City, Philadelphia or Washington D.C. was a difficult and expensive trip. Most members of Congress still had day jobs and only stayed in the nation’s Capitol part time. In the 1790s, the job was difficult enough that one-third of the Senate resigned while in office.
But even in those early days, Congress had one fundamental underpinning: It was supposed to be representative of the voters in the United States.
This representation, historically speaking, has been geographical. Members of the House represent districts on the national level, and members of the Senate represent states as a whole. And, together, they are supposed to represent the will of the voters.
Given this founding principle of representation, we thought it'd be fun to compare members of Congress to the general American population and American voters. We decided to do this using some of the standard demographic metrics we hear about in society: Age, race, gender, religion, education, income. We also thought it'd be fun to add a few other important questions: What about retirement plans? Pensions? Paid leave? Health insurance? Compared to average Americans, is being a member of Congress still a “good” career?
Below, we've put together some of what we found. We hope you find it interesting and insightful.
Age, race, gender, etc.
The first thing we looked at is the general makeup of Congress.
One of the things a lot of people think about is age. In the United States, a person must be:
- At least 35 years old to serve as president
- At least 30 to be a Senator
- At least 25 to be a member of Congress
The average age in the United States, as of 2019, was 38.1 years old. The average age in the House of Representatives is 58.4 years old and the average age in the Senate is 64.3 years old. The current Congress is the oldest of the past 20 years, and 50% of the Senate is older than 65 (compared to 16.5% of the general population).
While many news outlets compare the average age of Congress to Americans, it's a little misleading given how many Americans are under the age of 18. A better comparison might be to the age of registered voters. According to Pew, 52% of registered voters were above the age of 50 in 2019, and the median age was 50 years old.
Along with being one of the oldest Congresses in recent memory, this is the most racially and ethnically diverse Congress ever. 124 lawmakers identify as Black, Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander or Native American – accounting for 23% of both chambers of Congress, according to Pew. That includes 26% of the House and 11% of the Senate.
Despite this diversity, non-Hispanic white Americans still make up 77% of Congress, compared to just 60% of the U.S. population. But it may be more salient to again compare Congress to registered voters. In that case, the gap gets a little narrower: As of 2019, non-Hispanic white voters made up 69% of registered voters.
In Congress, 83% of all members who are racial or ethnic minorities are Democrats, and 17% are Republicans. In the House, 13% of members are Black, which is about equal to the share of the total U.S. population.
Relatedly, the share of foreign-born immigrants in Congress is also rising — though it is still below historical highs. There are 18 foreign-born lawmakers in this Congress, with 17 in the house and one in the Senate (Hawaii Democrat Mazie Hirono). They account for just 3% of all legislators, compared to 13.6% of people living in America who are foreign-born. This is also well below the historical high of the foreign-born share of Congress, given that many members (and the first presidents) in early U.S. history were born abroad. Still, in 1887, the 50th Congress had 8% of members who were foreign-born.
Meanwhile, in this Congress, 144 of 539 seats are held by women — approximately 27%. That is still far lower than the share of women (50.8%) in the general U.S. population, but it's also a 50% increase in congressional representation over a decade ago (historically speaking, it’s worth noting, women tend to show up and vote at higher rates than men).
One of the greatest areas of divergence that we see in Congress vs. Americans generally comes when we look at religion.
The biggest discrepancy lies in rates of religious affiliation. 26% of Americans identify as religiously unaffiliated, which encompasses atheism, agnosticism or "nothing in particular." But just one member of Congress does: Senator Kyrsten Sinema, the Democrat from Arizona. That's equivalent to 0.2% of Congress.
While 65% of America identifies as Christian, 88% of Congress does. And of the Christian denominations, Congress skews Protestant (55.4%) compared to the general population (43%). Interestingly, Catholics and Jews are also both over-represented in Congress: Catholics account for 29.8% of members and just 20% of U.S. adults, while Jews account for 6.2% of Congress and only 2% of U.S. adults.
On the other hand, Mormons, Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus are all slightly under-represented. Mormons make up 2% of U.S. adults and 1.7% of Congress; Buddhists make up 1% of U.S. and 0.4% of Congress; Muslims make up 1% of U.S. adults and 0.6% of Congress; Hindus make up 1% of the U.S. population and 0.4% of Congress.
As with race, we also see heavily partisan differences in the makeup of Congress. Nearly all of the non-Christian members of Congress are Democrats. Just 3 of the 261 Republicans sworn in to this Congress were non-Christian (two were Jewish and one declined to state a religious affiliation).
Before we begin this section, I'd like to make a personal note that I don't love the way we discuss "educated" Americans in the political realm. In my personal experience, college education is not very representative of general knowledge, understanding of politics or how we describe the state of being educated more generally. A lot of the smartest people I know never went to college but pursued careers in the trades; others never went to college and just started their own businesses. Some are high school dropouts who have been working since they were 16. I've never felt comfortable describing these folks as "uneducated" just because they didn't get a degree at a university. That being said, I am in many ways trapped in the modern paradigm, so in order to write about these issues I have to use some of the commonly understood language around them.
Over the last few years, political analysts have been focusing more on educational breakdowns in politics than ever before. One of the key insights into the 2020 and 2016 elections was that Republicans were doing better and better with voters who did not have college degrees, while more and more college educated voters flocked to the Democratic party.
Given that, we thought it'd be interesting to look at how Congress compares to U.S. adults when it comes to educational achievement.
The vast majority of Congress has a college degree. 94% of all House members and 100% of senators have at least a bachelor's degree. Two-thirds of the House and three-quarters of the Senate has at least one graduate degree, too. This is a major divergence from Congresses of the past. According to Pew, in the 79th Congress (1945-46), just 56% of House members and only 75% of senators had bachelor’s degrees (of course, fewer people in the general public had college degrees back then, too).
And compared to the United States, this is an even more massive discrepancy — perhaps the largest demographic discrepancy we found. In 2019, only about 36% of all American adults 25 or older had completed a bachelor's degree or more, compared to 100% of the Senate and 94% of the House.
Working in politics may be brutal sometimes, but working as a member of Congress isn't such a bad gig.
For starters, the pay is pretty good. Your typical member makes $174,000 per year, which is about four times the real median personal earnings of American workers over the age of 15 ($41,535, as of 2020). Again, though, a better comparison is probably to median incomes for full-time wage or salary workers in the U.S., which is $61,417. Just 30% of households in the United States earn an income of over $100,000, so a single member earning $174,000 is a pretty good salary.
It gets better, too, depending on your role. The most lucrative position in Congress is Speaker of the House, currently held by Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). She’s paid $223,500 per year. The majority and minority party leaders in the Senate and House also get a pay bump — each making $193,400 per year.
On top of that, members are also allowed to have "outside earned income,” but it’s limited to 15% of the annual rate of basic pay for level II of the Executive Schedule for federal employees. In 2018, that meant they could bring in up to $28,845 of extra income. There is no limit on how much money they can earn from investments and corporate dividends, though.
A couple of weeks ago, there were viral rumors that members of Congress had raised their own salaries in Joe Biden's $1.5 trillion spending bill. These claims are false. However, it is true that the bill included a larger Members' Representational Allowance, which funds the office budgets for those members, including their staffers. For years, poor pay and poor work-life balance has been an unfortunate part of life for D.C. staffers, and this raise was an attempt to address that.
I actually reached out to a few members of Congress and some staffers to ask them what they thought about the pay — and the quality of the job — for this piece. A couple declined to comment, a couple didn't reply at all, a few more gave rather bland "it's a good job" replies, but one staffer gave me a very thoughtful answer about what life on the Hill is really like: