Black legislators more active than white counterparts

In a behind-the-scenes analysis of the U.S. Congress, Brown University political scientist Katrina Gamble found that black representatives put more time and resources than white representatives into developing policies and advocating for legislation of interest to African Americans.

Furthermore, Gamble's findings indicate that black representatives are more actively involved on legislation of all types – not just on bills benefiting African American constituents. Her research focused on three committees in the House of Representatives from the 107th Congress, in session through 2001 and 2002. The findings are published in the current issue of Legislative Studies Quarterly.

“With Congress becoming increasingly diverse, it is crucial to study how diversity affects deliberation, discussion, and policy outcomes,” said Gamble, assistant professor of political science at Brown. “These findings demonstrate that diverse political institutions are important for providing political representation to racial minorities. As we see more and more African Americans run for state-wide and national office it is significant to know that many black politicians work as advocates for racial minorities, but are also active on a variety of issues relevant to all Americans.”

Rather than focusing on congressional roll call votes, which provide information about legislative outcomes but little insight into the legislative process, Gamble analyzed committee participation and racial differences within committee markups. Markups are full committee and subcommittee meetings held to develop, amend or completely rewrite the language of a bill. Since markups are rarely televised or publicly attended, Gamble says it is more likely that members are “engaged more in policy-making and deliberation and less in advertising and position taking than during floor speeches and committee hearings.”

Gamble examined transcripts of full committee markups from the Education and Workforce Committee, the Financial Services Committee, and the Judiciary Committee in the 107th Congress and scored legislators on a scale of 0-7 according to their participation level on each bill. Her unique dataset contains 29 randomly selected “nonracial” bills and 19 bills that fit a set of “black interest criteria” – i.e., policies that explicitly deal with race and policies that do not have explicit racial provisions, but address matters that have a disproportionate affect on blacks, such as education, housing affordability, and juvenile justice programs.

The most noteworthy result involved the “positive and significant” relationship between the race of the member and committee participation in black interest policies. On average, black members participated nearly one point more than white legislators on black interest bills. “While one point might seem like a small difference, it is substantively important. One point is the difference between a white legislator showing up and voting on a black interest bill and a black legislator showing up and voting and actually speaking during the committee markup. It could also mean the difference between speaking and actually offering an amendment,” Gamble said.

Gamble's findings also reveal “an unexpected puzzle” that black legislators on policy-oriented committees engage in more resource-costly activities during committee markups than do white legislators on both racial and nonracial policy areas.

“Black legislators' stated commitment to represent not only blacks, but also the unrepresented and the voiceless might further increase participation levels across various policy areas,” Gamble wrote. “Therefore, black members' high activity levels on both bill types during committee markups may be a result of a self-imposed responsibility to be vigilant across issue areas to ensure blacks and other marginalized groups concerns are incorporated into the legislative process.”

Gamble also found that regardless of race or party, committee leaders and subcommittee leaders participate more than non-leaders, which she hypothesizes is because leaders have more staff and resources available to dedicate to the work. Additionally, she found that Democrats, on average, have higher participation scores on both black interest bills and nonracial bills than Republicans.

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