House Republican leadership is largely white, male, and anchored in the South, and could hamper the party’s ability to appeal to an increasingly diverse nation. That profile stands in sharp contrast to the previous Democratically controlled chamber where minorities and women played larger roles.
Despite promises by Republicans over the decades to diversify their ranks and better reflect changing national demographics, Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and his lieutenants haven’t diversified the top of congressional committees that have huge influence over Americans of all stripes on issues ranging from taxes to housing and transportation.
The lack of diversity could hinder Republicans’ ability to communicate their policies to large swaths of the nation. And it could present challenges in winning re-election in 2024, a presidential election year when a greater share of Americans will likely be voting, including minorities and women.
Republicans on average represent a district in which over two-thirds of constituents are white, according to a Bloomberg Government analysis of Census data. In comparison, whites are less than a majority of the population in the average district represented by a Democrat.
“When people are looking at the person that’s putting up the policy, they want see themselves reflected in that,” said former Rep. Mia Love (R-Utah), who is Black and has been critical of GOP leadership. “The messenger matters.”
The numbers are stark: Four out of five committee heads for the next two years are white men.
A popular Twitter joke going around Capitol Hill is that more chairs are named Michael or Mike than are women.
By contrast, people of color and women held the majority of gavels when Democrats were in charge.
Democratic Conference Chair Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) said it was clear Democrats reflected the diversity of their constituents and it was “unfortunate that the other side of the aisle doesn’t value it the same way.”
“It’s harmful if the American public doesn’t feel like their elected officials represent them. And what we’ve seen is some of the largest, fastest growing communities are AAPI and Latino communities,” he said in a hallway interview. “If Republicans aren’t going to represent and advocate for those communities, they’re going to have some difficulty in the future.
Democrats face criticism within their caucus for a leadership that doesn’t represent all parts of the country, particularly from the Midwest.
Love, the only Black Republican woman ever elected to Congress, found the body’s seniority hamstrung her chances to boost her political stature. In her memoir that published last week, Love recalled that House Republican leaders — including McCarthy — helped her win the Republican nomination in 2014 over more established white men.
But, Love said, in an interview, opportunities once she got to Washington were lacking. The daughter of immigrants said she “begged” to present the Republican position on immigration overhaul, only to see that starring role fall instead to then-Judiciary Chair Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), a white man. She served just two terms.
“People need to know that not only do you care, not only are you good at what you do, but you actually care about who they are,” Love said.
Republicans in recent cycles have taken steps to diversify their ranks. Two women now hold gavels of some of the most powerful committees in the body, five Latinas and four Black men have joined the conference since 2020. Rep. Stephanie Bice (R-Okla.), who is Iranian-American, also serves as a junior member of leadership.
“I am very proud of what you’re looking at today,” McCarthy told reporters shortly after Republicans selected their leadership team. “This party is more reflective of our county than almost any time in our nation and it’s only going to continue to grow.”
But those handful of freshmen and sophomores have to wait in line behind more senior colleagues who are white in a legislative body that favors longevity. Even the least junior committee chairmen — beneficiaries of term limits that ushered out their predecessors — are starting their third terms.
Stuck In The South
Republicans also face regional diversity issues.
Committee chairs largely hail from more conservative Southern states, some of which have multiple gavels. Texas, whose delegation comprises the plurality of the whole conference, won chairmanships of four panels: Appropriations, Foreign Affairs, Budget, and Small Business. Missouri, North Carolina, and Oklahoma lawmakers each claimed two gavels during chair selection.
There are no committee chairs from the heavily Democratic states of California and New York, which were well represented in leadership circles under Democratic control.
To be sure, both coasts are represented by McCarthy and Conference Chair Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.).
Republicans have shown modest success in making inroads among demographics that traditionally have supported Democrats.
Every House seat Republicans flipped in 2020 from Democratic control was won by a woman, person of color, or veteran. All five of the conference’s Latinas were elected since 2020 by flipping Democratic-held seats.
Rep. Byron Donalds (Fla.), a Black Republican who briefly won the support of McCarthy’s opponents in balloting for speaker, said in an interview that his party takes “very seriously” diversification of the conference, especially in recruiting new candidates.
But he said Republicans prioritize “competency” in selecting leadership. Donalds and Rep. Burgess Owens (Utah), the two most senior Black men in the Republican conference, were elected just two years ago.
“To be in a place where we just seek diversity for diversity’s sake, that’s not what we should be doing,” Donalds said. He said the party’s current leaders already do a good job and “if you have diversity aspect that go along with competency, then we get the best of both worlds.”
McCarthy, after the balloting over the speakership, rewarded Donalds with a seat on the influential Steering Committee, which picks which members lead or sit on panels that craft legislation and hold hearings.
But Donalds’ nomination also drew ire from Black Democratic lawmakers. Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) tweeted that Republicans were using Donalds as “a prop.”
“Despite being Black, he supports a policy agenda intent on upholding and perpetuating white supremacy,” Bush said in the tweet. “His name being in the mix is not progress—it’s pathetic.”
Diverse GOP members have won plum spots on policy committees. Rep. Juan Ciscomani (R-Ariz.), who is Latino, is the only freshman to secure a seat on the Appropriations Committee. Bice too will join the spending panel.
“Things are only better when you have those voices in the room,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) said. “Particularly when you have those voices in key committees, it’s very helpful.”
Rep. Michelle Steel (Calif.), one of two Asian-American Republican women in the House, earlier this month won a seat on the powerful Ways & Means Committee. The other, Rep. Young Kim (Calif.), is joining Financial Services.
Where Republicans have made the most gains in diversifying their leadership came by elevating women. The 124 women in the House, 33 of whom are Republican, broke records for female representation, according to the Center for American Women and Politics.
Stefanik ranks as No. 4 in the conference as chair, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) and Rep. Kay Granger (Texas) will be the first Republican women to run the Energy & Commerce and Appropriations committees, respectively. Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) too will once again hold the gavel for the Education and the Workforce Committee.
At the same time, the most high profile woman of the 117th Congress, former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), has stepped down from her leadership role, replaced by a Republican white male.
Rules Committee Chair Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who is Native American, said diversity is “getting better,” with the caveat that “you don’t do diversity for diversity’s sake.”
“We have a lot better balance then we certainly had when I got here, and we’re working toward it,” he said.