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Having the most diverse Congress ever will affect more than just legislation

Women, minorities and veterans have new advocates in the 116th Congress. As has been widely noted, it’s the most diverse in congressional history, with more women and racial and ethnic minorities than any previous Congress — in the House, 106 women, compared with the 2015 record of 92, and 115 minority members, compared with the 2015 record of 105. What’s more, though the number of veterans in Congress has been going down historically, this Congress has the largest number of new members who’ve served in the military in over a decade – 19.

Those lawmakers’ advocacy is likely to extend beyond what is typically covered by news outlets or offered up for a floor vote. If past patterns hold, increased diversity is likely to shape not only how lawmakers vote but also whose interests they fight for in the hallways of the bureaucracy.

Lawmakers who are themselves people of color or returning veterans are more likely to contact federal agencies on behalf of these constituencies than their other colleagues. That matters because bureaucratic agencies sometimes neglect these communities. That’s what happened, for instance, in 2014, when CNN discovered that Department of Veterans Affairs employees had falsified wait-time records to cover up how long it took for veterans to get health care — resulting in deaths and deterioration as sick veterans waited to be seen.

Here’s how we did our research

We used the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to study whether legislators who are members of minority groups are more likely to advocate and intervene with the bureaucracy on behalf of those communities. FOIA allows any citizen to request records from federal agencies. When a member of Congress contacts an agency, that agency typically keeps a record of the call, email or letter in a log. Members of Congress themselves are not subject to FOIA, but these agency logs are.

We submitted requests to 73 agencies for records of their communications with members of Congress (House and Senate). Of those, 15 agencies responded with complete, usable data, including large executive departments like Education, Labor, Homeland Security and Housing and Urban Development. These logs include correspondence from all members of Congress who served from 2005 to 2014. We read and coded records of over 88,000 contacts from legislators to the agencies, identifying all the contacts from lawmakers’ offices made in support of women, racial and ethnic minorities, or veterans.

Many members’ offices inquire, for example, about specific pending cases of race or gender discrimination. Others act on behalf of protected groups as a whole. For instance, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), a Navy veteran, contacted the Department of Homeland Security in 2005 to ask “what measures DHS is taking to fully utilize the procurement program for small businesses owned and controlled by service-disabled veterans.” A group of legislators led by Reps. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Hilda L. Solis (D-Calif.), both women, wrote to the Department of Labor in 2006 asking it to “reverse the actions that would diminish the vital role of women’s bureau.”

In short, these communications allow us to observe when members of Congress (privately) take the time to intervene on behalf of women, racial and ethnic minorities, and military veterans.

Here’s what we found.

Legislators from underrepresented groups disproportionately advocate for these communities

Legislators who are women, minorities and/or veterans advocate more actively for citizens from their respective groups. In fact, they’re about six to nine percentage points more likely to contact agencies on behalf of constituents with whom they share a background, compared to their non-veteran, male or white fellow legislators.

Being represented by a female legislator, for example, increases the probability that your lawmaker will intervene with an agency by about eight percentage points — even after taking into account the legislator’s ideology and the district’s demographics.

Lawmakers aren’t just responding to more assertive constituents

Are legislators from protected groups more active advocates on behalf of their groups? Or are citizens just more likely to contact legislators with whom they share a common background?

To look into this, we set aside all cases when lawmakers intervened with agencies when prompted by a constituent’s request for help. That left only general inquiries like those from Kerry, DeLauro and Solis. Even then, we still found members were more active advocates for groups they share backgrounds with. That suggests lawmakers’ advocacy on behalf of particular groups isn’t driven solely by more frequent communication from those groups of constituents. For example, for districts now represented by a lawmaker with military service, an increase in contact about veterans issues won’t only be because veterans are now more likely to call their congressperson.

Shared backgrounds no doubt matter in shaping connections between legislators and their constituents. Experimental research by political scientists Daniel Butler and David Broockman shows that state lawmakers respond differently to constituents they believe to be black or white. In other research, Broockman shows that Maryland state legislators hear more frequently — and disproportionately so — from constituents of the same race.

Either way, the makeup of Congress will affect whose concerns lawmakers take up with federal agencies.

Note: This post has been updated with more historical information. 

Kenneth Lowande is an assistant professor of political science and public policy (by courtesy) at the University of Michigan.

Melinda Ritchie is an assistant professor of political science at the University of California at Riverside.

Erinn Lauterbach (@LauterbachErinn) is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of California at Riverside.