PARTICIPANTS IN THE LEGISLATIVE PROCESS

The legislative process encompasses a variety of participants (Jillson, 2016). Three sets of participants who are particularly relevant to legislative activity—legislators, executives, and lobbyists. We discuss these three sets of participants separately.

Legislators The United States has almost 7,400 legislators at the federal and state levels. Who are these legislators? Do they represent a cross-section of the population? What sociodemographic groups are overrepresented or underrepresented in the legislature? Social scientists have carried out a number of investigations on the social origins and occupational backgrounds of legislators and other political decision makers. This body of research yields several generalizations about the individuals who serve as legislators (Kurtz, 2015).

Not too many decades ago, almost all legislators were white, male, and Protestant. This combination of backgrounds is still common today among legislators, as legislators who are white, male, and Protestant are more common than is true for the national population. But more women and more people of color now populate the nation’s legislatures than was true in years past, even though people from these backgrounds remain underrepresented in the nation’s legislatures. For example, only 4% of state legislators in 1971 were women, whereas about 25% of state legislators in this decade are women (Kurtz, 2015). Although this represents a six-fold increase, this proportion still represents a notable underrepresentation of women, who, as is well-known, comprise about 50% of the population.

Similarly, African Americans comprised only 2% of all state legislators in 1971, whereas today they comprise 9%. Although this represents more than a four-fold increase, it means that African Americans, who comprise about 13%—14% of the national population, are still underrepresented among state legislators. Similarly, Latinos were virtually unknown among state legislators in the 1970s, but today comprise about 5% of state legislators. However, this figure is less than one-third of their 17% share of the national population (Kurtz, 2015).

Legislators are also unrepresentative of the national population in another way: They tend to be much more educated than the national population. Whereas most federal and state legislators have at least a 4-year college degree (bachelor’s degree), only about one-third of adults nationwide (25 and older) have at least a bachelor’s degree. Even more striking, two- thirds of Congress and 40% of state legislators have an advanced (graduate or professional) degree, compared to only 12% of the national population ages 25 and older who have an advanced degree (Kurtz, 2015; National Center for Education Statistics, 2016).

An interesting change from the 1970s concerns the occupational backgrounds of state legislators. In the 1970s, lawyers were more common among state legislators than is true today, when only 14% of state legislators are attorneys. By contrast, the leading occupation today of state legislators is in business, with 30% of legislators coming from business backgrounds. Perhaps not surprisingly, more than 15% of state legislators in the farm states of the Midwest come from agricultural backgrounds (Kurtz, 2015).

From the preceding discussion, it is evident that no legislature comes close to representing a cross-section of the population it serves. The political system inevitably has built-in biases and numerous devices for the containment of minority-group aspirations for office and for the advancement of dominant segments of the population. Some groups win often; others lose often.

The Executive The president and the governors carry out several functions in the legislative process (Jillson, 2016):

  • They serve as a source of ideas for the programs that legislative bodies consider.
  • They function as catalytic agents.
  • They apply the law.

Although the degree to which governors initiate ideas for legislative programs varies among the states, in most instances executive recommendations are the principal items on the legislators’ agenda. At the federal level, legislative recommendations emerge from individual cabinet departments or from federal agencies and are sent to the president far in advance of presentation to Congress. The presidential initiative is a permanent and ubiquitous feature of the legislative process at the federal level (Jones, 2009).

The president and the governors also function as catalytic agents in the legislative process. They not only offer programs but also strive to achieve support for legislation, both directly within legislative bodies and indirectly through interest groups, party leaders, and other political activists. They are also greatly concerned with the manipulation of public opinion (Brooker and Schaefer, 2006).

The application of law constitutes a third executive contribution to the legislative process.

The legislative process seldom ends when the executive has signed a bill into law. In many instances, the enactment of a law is not the most important step in making public policy.

Much legislation is phrased in general terms to apply to a diversity of concrete situations. Law is interpreted and given new dimensions as it is applied under the direction of the executive.

 
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