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  • Writer's pictureMegan M

Congress: In the Business of Law

Senators and Representatives are generally understood as meant to serve the people of the United States. Many campaigns run on that platform. The official role of a representative is to introduce bills and resolutions while the official role of a Senator is to ratify treaties and confirm presidential appointments. Given these duties, any person meeting the demographic requirements with the good of the American people in mind should be qualified to serve as a member of Congress. However, looking at the background of past and current members of Congress from 2013 to 2020, there is an overwhelming majority of business and law backgrounds. How does this affect policy, governing, and perspective? It’s time to take a closer look at your Senators and Representatives.

A Glance at Reported Occupations

The Congressional Research Service provides a convenient and concise profile of each Congress from the 113th (2013) to the 116th (2020) – thanks to Jennifer E. Manning, the senior research librarian who compiled each of the profiles. A single table with this data is shown below, revealing the majority of law and business backgrounds. More interestingly, though, is the “SUM” row. You’ll notice the values consistently exceed the total number of representatives and Senators in each chamber. In the 116th Congress, there are 435 representatives and 100 Senators, however, the reported professions sums to 585 representatives and 143 Senators. This means that approximately one third of representatives report two professions and half of Senators do the same. It’s understandable if a congressmember is accounting for their past position in Congress or local government as public service, but it prompts a further investigation into what their profession before public service was. What would the numbers look like if members could only claim one profession, not including public service? Given the outsized law and business backgrounds, it would likely make those counts seem even higher.

Occupational Classes Listed by Senators and Representatives 

From The 113th Congress to the 116th Congress

Relevance vs. Perspective of Law and Business in Congress

Is business and law relevant to lawmaking? Yes. Businesses backgrounds bring the knowledge of logistics, management, large-scale operations, and people-focused organization. Law backgrounds bring an understanding of the legal system, legal proceedings, the history of our nation’s law, and the application of civil and criminal law. 

Does business and law alter the perspective of lawmaking? Yes. A representative of the people needs to have the perspective of the people. The American people are, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), most commonly employed as retail salespeople, cashiers, food preppers/servers, office clerks, and registered nurses. Contrastingly, the government creating and passing laws for the American people is not made up of those same service classes. Note that the education level of the 113th to the 116th Congress was at a minimum 94% college educated with a Bachelor’s Degree or higher, so it is likely that any occupation reported as public service or business is not synonymous with service worker such as a retail salesperson. For comparison, only 33% of Americans over age 25 are estimated to have a Bachelor's degree. 

A representative is tasked with introducing laws, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a that a law or business background is required. A Senator is tasked with passing laws, but even more so in that position is a voice representative of the people called for. Nevertheless, the past 7 years of Congresspeople show those law and business backgrounds being the overwhelming majority. Checks and balances are at the foundation of our nation’s government. That balance is lost when similar perspectives are both making and passing our laws.

Take Senator Kelly Loeffler (R-GA), a previous CEO, and Senator Richard Burr (R-NC), a previous 17-year salesman, who both sold stock of unfavorable companies in January or February just before the coronavirus pandemic was ramping up in the United States in March.  Both Senators were receiving briefings on the coronavirus situation within their Senate Committees. While the average American was becoming worried for their health, just learning about the virus, finally understanding the severity of the virus, or anticipating a struggle with making bill payments, those two senators with business backgrounds were prioritizing personal profits. Note that while the median American household income is around$62,000, Loeffler and Burr were selling between $100,000 and $18 million dollars of stock.  Would the first priority of a doctor or nurse be to make a profit for themselves instead of saving lives?

Congress: The People’s Choice

At the end of the day, Congresspeople are voted into office. It’s not common for a candidate to run on the history of being a successful lawyer or businessman as much as it is to run on the passion and persistence of serving the people. However, Congresspeople’s consistent law and business backgrounds must be more than a coincidence. There may be a correlation with education level, income level, or occupational flexibility that is unmatched by America’s most common service workers. Whatever the reason may be, business and law has hatched itself into Congress and if America each year feels like more of the same to you, those common backgrounds are a place to start paying attention to. Of course there are always exceptions, as is the case with former congressman John Glenn (D-OH 1974-1989), who was an astronaut, a WWII and Koren War veteran, and the first person to fly an aircraft making a supersonic transcontential flight.

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