Debt supercommittee’s membership dominated by white men

August 14, 2011

With House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) announcement Thursday of her three appointees to the bipartisan debt “supercommittee,” the panel’s 12-member roster is complete. It represents a broad range of ideological views, from House Republican Conference Chairman Jeb Hensarling (Tex.) on the right to Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) on the left.

But the group’s membership is marked by a problem that has plagued Congress — a lack of gender and racial diversity.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) is the only woman on the panel. House Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra (Calif.) is the group’s only Hispanic. And House Assistant Democratic Leader James E. Clyburn (S.C.) is the only African American.

Neither Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) nor House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) appointed any women or minorities among their six picks for the panel.

Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner, said that when it comes to the task facing the supercommittee, “helping to get our debt and deficit under control to get the economy moving again and create more jobs is important to every American.”

Women make up 51 percent of the U.S. population, according to the most recent Census, but comprise just 17 percent of members of Congress, according to figures from the House and Senate press galleries.

Hispanics made up 16 percent of the country’s population in the 2010 Census and comprise 6 percent of the 112th Congress. And African Americans are 13 percent of the U.S. population and 8 percent of the Congress.

The Senate faces a particular lack of racial diversity: Its membership includes two Hispanics — Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — and two Asian Americans — Sens. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii). No African American senators currently sit in the chamber; the last to serve was Roland Burris (D-Ill.), who retired last year from the seat formerly held by President Obama and was succeeded in November by Sen. Mark Kirk (R).

Some on the committee argue that experience, not gender or race, is the factor that matters most in the calculus of who takes part in the debt discussions.

“I’ve always said that we can be no more or less than what our experiences allow us to be, and if you’re going to put together this kind of effort on behalf of the country, you ought to have as many experiences and as many backgrounds as you possibly can participate in it,” Clyburn said in an interview Friday.

Doesn’t reflect country

Even so, some lawmakers and outside groups have argued that if Congress has tapped the supercommittee to make decisions that affect the country as a whole, its membership should better reflect the country.

“Half the committee ought to be women, even though women only account for 17 percent of the Congress,” Terry O’Neill, the president of the National Organization for Women, said in an interview Friday. “Women are going to be disproportionately affected by what the committee does. I’m very troubled by the fact that these 11 men and one woman are now going to take the place of 535 legislators.”

With the likelihood that the panel will be examining proposals to cut entitlement programs, O’Neill noted that about 56 percent of Medicare recipients are women and that a large portion of Medicaid funding goes toward supporting nursing homes — facilities where the vast majority of residents and workers are women. On top of that, O’Neill said, women have less savings to fall back on due to “a lifetime of working for unequal pay.”

“The committee has to swallow hard and accept the truth that women are suffering and struggling and need help,” she said.

Rep. Charles A. Gonzalez (D-Tex.), chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said that the stakes in the debt talks are particularly high for Hispanics.

“While every American would be impacted by the committee’s plan to reduce the deficit by $1.5 trillion, the Latino community has the most at stake if further cuts are made to programs critical to getting our economy back on track,” Gonzalez said. “Latino families have been greatly impacted by the housing crisis and recession, with unemployment rates for our community consistently higher than average.”

The supercommittee, however, better reflects the diversity of the country than have previous panels that were charged with tackling the nation’s debt.

During the closed-door talks led by Vice President Biden earlier this year, no women or Hispanics were at the table. One of the group’s six members was African American — Clyburn.

Similarly, the discussions led by the White House over the past several months involved another group of six participants — Obama, Biden and the top party leaders in each house of Congress. Among them were one African American, Obama, and one woman, Pelosi.

Neither of those rounds of negotiations was marked by a public outcry over who was, or wasn’t, sitting at the table.

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