Why do some members of Congress choose to file legislation or otherwise advocate for disadvantaged or marginalized people at least some of the time? What compels these lawmakers to take a stand to better the lives of Black Americans, the LGBTQ community, Latinos, women and the poor?
And could the answer help lead to a more inclusive, diverse Congress?
Those questions are at the heart of Representing the Disadvantaged: Group Interests and Legislator Reputation in U.S. Congress (Cambridge University Press), a new book by Katrina McNally, Ph.D., assistant professor of political science at Eckerd College.
Advocating for disadvantaged and marginalized people is neither lucrative nor wildly popular within the halls of Congress. “But we know some people who do try to work on behalf of their poor or marginalized constituents,” McNally says. “What separates those folks from everybody else?”
Instead of looking at which groups are underserved, McNally focuses on how likely it is that a member of Congress will cultivate a reputation as an advocate for the disadvantaged, and under what circumstances.
“I constructed a new measure of looking at what these advocates are known for,” McNally says. “Their reputations. I read hundreds of pages of profiles of members of Congress from Congressional Quarterly. How often is it referenced that someone is working for or making public statements on behalf of these groups? Or voting for something that would benefit them?
“Who, for instance, is talking about being a champion of women’s rights or LGBTQ rights?”
McNally also examines why a member of Congress would choose to be an advocate. “Shared experience is a big factor,” she says. “Did you grow up poor? Those people tend to be the ones who break out of the pack.”
McNally, who earned her Ph.D. from the University of Maryland, also argues that the concept of majority rule isn’t completely accurate. “The basic democratic model we have is the more people there are of a certain group, the more likely it is that a member of Congress will represent them. But it doesn’t work that way.
“Think about groups like seniors or veterans. They have advocates everywhere in Congress, but those groups don’t face the same challenges as other large groups. A big part of our population is composed of racial and ethnic minorities. But that basic connection to Congress that we would expect isn’t there.”
Although her book has been out only a few weeks, it has already caught the attention of scholars.
“Katrina McNally’s Representing the Disadvantaged is theoretically strong, empirically impressive and vitally relevant in our increasingly diverse nation,” says Wendy Schiller, professor of political science and director of the A. Alfred Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy at Brown University. “This book makes a significant contribution to our understanding of congressional representation of seniors, the poor, women, racial and ethnic minorities, veterans, and the LGBTQ community. It should be read by everyone who wants to understand 21st-century congressional politics.”
Adds Stella M. Rouse, professor in the Department of Government and Politics and director of the Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement at the University of Maryland, “The challenges faced by the disadvantaged are different from those of the more advantaged. To better understand these challenges and how they can be addressed, we need to know who are the disadvantaged, how they are systematically distinct from other groups in American society, and what drives disadvantaged group advocacy in Congress. Katrina McNally tackles these timely questions in Representing the Disadvantaged.”
McNally says her hope for the book, which was five years in the making, is that it will help readers “gain a better understanding of why members of Congress choose to advocate on behalf of disadvantaged and marginalized groups, and whether that can help open a door to identifying how to boost the representation those groups receive.
“The best way to boost the representation of marginalized and disadvantaged groups,” she adds, “is to elect a more diverse Congress.”