Don't swear at the new Congress -- just yet

John Fairhall

January 10, 1991|By John Fairhall

THE 102nd Congress has just been sworn in, and probably soon will be sworn at, unless public opinion of Capitol Hill has suddenly improved.

But critics ought to delay judgment a bit because this isn't exactly the same group they jeered in 1990: There are 44 new House members and four new senators.

That amounts to a 10 percent turnover in the 435-member House and 4 percent in the 100-member Senate (where 35 seats were at stake last November). It's not a high rate of change, but neither should it be overlooked.

Fresh faces are entering Congress, especially the House. Take a look at the new batch:

* Twenty-six blacks, a record, were elected in November, including the first black Republican since the Depression. Twenty-nine women were elected, four more than two years ago (although four women won special elections in 1989 and 1990). The number of Hispanics in the House remained at 12.

* The freshman class includes a farmer, a hotel owner, an architect, a banker, a few lawyers, an educational administrator, a veterinarian, real estate investor, tree farmer, radio station owner, advertising executive, stockbroker and four people who held political office at the time of election.

* Fourteen of the 44 newcomers had never held political office. Republican Wayne T. Gilchrest, the teacher who ousted veteran Democrat Roy P. Dyson in Maryland's 1st Congressional District, stands out in this group because he had no political experience other than running for office. The other 13 include legislative aides who worked in Washington or in statehouses.

But don't look for a trend in nouveau politicians like Gilchrest. "The overall historical trend has been toward more experience, more of a political occupation ladder, especially in the House of ,, Representatives," says Roger Davidson, professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland College Park.

"I think all of us wish there were more diversity," Davidson says. "[Former Sen.] Howard Baker talked a lot in the 1980s about the citizen legislator -- sort of like Cincinnatus being dragged out of the fields . . . I'm not sure that's feasible today."

The mix of congressional backgrounds is changing, however, marked especially by the decreasing number of lawyer-legislators.

"Lawyers actually peaked in the 19th century," Davidson says. "There were more than 70 percent lawyers in some of the congresses."

Congressional Quarterly reports the number of lawyers in the House is 183. The magazine notes that the second largest occupational group in the House, bankers and business people, also lost ground in the last election and stands at 157.

Smaller groups in the House include educators (57), journalists (25) and farmers (20). There are only two actor/entertainers and three former jocks.

Certain occupational groups, like blue-collar workers, are nearly invisible. And minorities and women still comprise a far smaller percentage of Congress than they do of the population.

As Davidson says, some people can't run for office because they can't take time off from work. Quitting is not financially feasible for most. Furthermore, challengers must compete against the fund-raising advantages of incumbency.

But the guard does change, if slowly. And members of the Class of '91, like baseball rookies in spring training, deserve a few swings at the plate before final judgment.

Then you can boo.

John Fairhall is the Washington correspondent for The Evening A Sun.

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