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How the record number of female lawmakers will — and won’t — change Congress

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) share a laugh as they accompany their fellow House Democratic women for a portrait in front of the Capitol on Jan. 4. (Getty Images)

A record number of women are serving in the 116th Congress. These 25 senators and 102 House members will have the opportunity to champion favored issues and try to advance them through Congress. But political scientists offer mixed findings on whether women are more effective lawmakers than men. Here’s what we know and what it might mean for the current Congress.

Having the most diverse Congress ever will affect more than just legislation.

1. Male and female lawmakers tend to pursue different legislative priorities

Our recent research focuses on the specific types of issues put forward by men and women in Congress. Political scientist Michele Swers’s earlier research found that women were more likely to advance certain “women’s issues” in Congress, as have other scholars of legislative politics.

To explore this further, we tracked all 151,824 public bills introduced by both male and female lawmakers in the House between 1973 and 2014 across 19 different issue areas.

Like others before us, we found that on average, women in Congress dedicated a greater proportion of their time to issues of health, education, family, housing, labor and civil rights. In contrast, men focused disproportionately on agriculture, energy and macroeconomic policy. Men and women shared about equal amounts of interest in such areas as government operations and transportation.

2. Many of these women’s issues ended in deadlock

When we tracked the outcomes of these proposals, we discovered that efforts to advance self-identified women’s issues — those introduced at a greater rate by female lawmakers — are much more likely to result in stalemate than other issues. Overall, 4 percent of all bills introduced in the House become law. But for the bills focusing on women’s issues, success was cut in half, to a mere 2 percent.

It could be that women’s issues are less prone to advance in Congress because consensus is naturally harder to reach in these particular policy areas. But it’s also possible that male lawmakers — who make up three-quarters of the House membership — are less likely to stand up for issues that disproportionately interest women.

We also looked separately at the bills on women’s issues that female lawmakers sponsored. If a woman sponsored the bill, the low success rate for women’s issues in general was cut in half again. Women who introduce bills on issues such as housing, labor or civil rights achieved only a 1 percent success rate in moving their proposals through to law. This gap between the success rates of male and female sponsors was most significant in the areas of health and education.

Does this gap emerge because women are less senior in Congress, on average, than men? We checked and found that even after we take account of a broad array of forces that might affect success rates, female lawmakers are still less successful than their male colleagues in advancing women’s issues. Those factors include a lawmaker’s seniority in the chamber, whether he or she is in the majority party or chair of a committee, and so on. As the figure below shows, this pattern has held consistently over 40 years, regardless of whether Democrats or Republicans controlled the House.

3. Gridlock kicks in early for women’s bills

Our research suggests that gridlock strikes early for women’s issues sponsored by women. These bills are especially unlikely to even get passed by a committee.

Why might that be? One key reason is probably the limited numbers of women in committee leadership positions. Over the years we study, women made up just over 10 percent of seats in the House, rising from 4 percent in the 1970s to 23 percent today. But women serving as committee chairs was even rarer. Only 10 women held committee chairmanships over the 21 Congresses that we studied, making up less than 3 percent of chair positions.

With so few female committee chairs, it’s tough to draw firm conclusions about whether their leadership would help women’s bills stay on track. But there’s lots of evidence that committee chairs can be decisive in helping a proposal succeed. Chairs can direct their committees’ time and resources to their preferred issues and can easily bottle up proposals they do not value. Hence, if a committee chair is not predisposed toward advancing bills that engage with women’s issues, that committee’s resources are likely to be directed toward advancing other policy priorities. That would contribute to stalling these kinds of bills.

4. Prospects in the new Congress

Democratic women now lead several important committees. For instance, Rep. Nita M. Lowey of New York helms the House Appropriations Committee, and Rep. Maxine Waters of California will head the financial services panel. But men still chair both the Education and Labor Committee and the Energy and Commerce Committee. Those committees would consider bills addressing many “women’s issues,” including health, education and labor.

But having more women entering the House may nevertheless change the calculus

Simply having so many seats at the table will amplify women’s concerns. Each additional seat held by a woman moves Congress closer to the critical mass needed to take all policy issues equally seriously. And, as our figure shows, the last time men and women had equal success in advancing women’s issues was also the last time Nancy Pelosi was House speaker — which suggests that having a woman at the top (and Pelosi, in particular) may make an especially large difference.

What will it take to end the shutdown? Watch these three things.

Craig Volden (@craigvolden) is professor of public policy and politics at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia and co-director of the Center for Effective Lawmaking.

Alan E. Wiseman is chair of the political science department at Vanderbilt University, where he is the Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Political Economy, the Joe B. Wyatt Distinguished University Professor, and professor of political science and law. He is the co-director of the Center for Effective Lawmaking.

Dana Wittmer Wolfe is associate professor of political science at Colorado College.