What's the matter with Congress? Not enough farmers and cowboys (interactive)

By Chris Wilson

Most Americans seem to agree that Congress is seeped in a primordialsoup of dysfunction, to put it lightly. When it comes to how things got to thispoint, there are more theories than there are representatives to theorizeabout. Some say moneyhas corrupted lawmakers, others say the electoralsystem is broken, and one guy even thinks the 435-member House is toosmall.

Most of these explanations are agnostic as to who the members of Congress actually are. As we gear up for another round of hearty outrage at our legislators—there’s a debt-ceiling vote coming up—I would like to propose an alternative explanation: If Americans want broad agreements from Congress, they are electing the wrong type of people. It’s not the system. It’s us.

To measure how the makeup of Congress has changed over the decades and centuries, I turned to the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, which maintains short biographies of nearly every one of the 12,000 people to serve in the U.S. legislature since day one of the country.

Browsed at random, the biographies have roughly the entertainment value of an Ikea assembly guide, so I downloaded them all and put together a small search engine to scan them and look for how common different words are over time.

Here, for example, is how often the word "war" pops up in the bios of members in each of the 113 sessions of Congress since 1789:

Mentions of 'war' in congressional biographies

And here is the frequency of the word "farm":

Mentions of 'farm' in congressional biographies

You can try it yourself here: Type in anything you like and see how often it shows up. Click a bar to see members who match the search for that particular two-year session of Congress, and click the name of the members to read the bio.


If you play around with this for a moment, you quickly see that Congress is subject to the same demographic trends as the country, though perhaps on a somewhat gentrified frequency. If you type in “university college”—you want to capture either word here to get everyone—you see that only half to two-thirds of biographies mention higher education through 1900. Only in the last few decades have these words become universal.

Or try "lawyer," and see how that blossoms since 1950. (The word "attorney," on the other hand, peaks in the 65th congress between 1917 and 1919.)

So is that the problem with Congress? Too much schoolin’ and too many lawyers? Or two few farmers? Or too few soldiers and farmers? You would think educated people well versed in the law would make excellent legislators, and those Army commercials lead me to understand that military service breeds excellent leadership skills.

Then again, you might also think a legislator’s primary job was to write legislation. It is not. Their job is to agree on legislation.

My theory for Congress’s dysfunction, only loosely burdened by evidence, is that its members are too heavily staffed with lawyers and bureaucrats, leading to a culture in which compromise is of a lower priority than political victory. If you spend any time in a state legislature, you see a different kind of assembly: people with fulltime jobs unaffiliated with the law who spend a few months a year in the state capitol. The nutjob quotient is decidedly higher, but so is the probability that unusual and useful coalitions will coalesce when the opportunity arises. (Of course, in just as many cases, everything falls apart in the state legislatures as well.)

Thus, the word I nominate as most indicative of Congress’ woes is “employed,” given its decline in usage over the past 30 years. I saythis not to be snide—I trust virtually all members of Congress have held down a job—but because the word typically corresponds to members who worked in anindustry outside government. (The 1920s Texasrepresentative Claude Benton Hudspeth, for example, was “employed as a cowboy.”)

Mentions of 'employed' in congressional biographies.

But there are better words out there, and I want your theories for what single word best captures the present state of Congress. Each time you search for a word, it updates the tweet button to the right of the search bar. When you find one you like, tweet it out and I’ll compile the most popular searches for an update to this column.

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