How to know the Senate better through data visualization

by and

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The shutdown has been averted. The debt ceiling has been raised. For now.  In the process, Congress’ public approval has fallen to around 10 percent – and as low as 5 percent in one poll.

But how much do you know about who actually serves in Congress? How do you know who to even disapprove of?

Today, we unveil a new interactive tool that will allow you to get to know the U.S. Senate a little better. While it’s easy to focus on prominent Senate leaders like Harry Reid (D-Nev.) or Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) or prominent grandstanders like Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), we think it matters who our 100 senators are: What are their backgrounds? What is their education? What did they do before coming to the Senate? Who do they depend on most to support their campaigns? All of these factors shape how they collectively make decisions.

For this reason, we’ve created an interactive tool that allows you to explore the U.S. Senate. You can see how Senators break down across a wide variety of dimensions.

Gender: Not too many women

You might know that women are underrepresented in the Senate. There are only 20 female senators. (click the link to see the breakdown)

But you can also see that while the Democratic caucus is 70.4 percent male, the Republican caucus is 91.3 percent male. (again, click the link to see the breakdown)

Or, say, you were interested in gender by committee. You could see that highly sought-after Finance Committee has the lowest percentage of women (excluding Joint Committees). Just two of 24 slots on the committee go to women — Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D–Mich., and Maria Cantwell, D–Wash.

By contrast, both the Small Business and Entrepreneurship and Special Committee on Aging (two of the less desirable Senate committees) gave 6 of 20 slots to women – or 30 percent.

Some committees are more polarized than others

Or, on the theme of committees, say you wanted to see which committees were most or least polarized? You can group or color by “Extremism” (the categories are based on DW Nominate scores).

You can see that the most polarized committee is the Foreign Relations committee, mostly because there are a lot of conservative Republicans on the committee. By contrast, the Appropriations Committee has more moderate Republicans. (again, click the links to see the breakdowns)

The millionaire’s club

Or, say, you care about personal wealth. You know the Senate is full of rich folks, but our tool can help you dig a little deeper. Of the 100 Senators, just seven reported personal assets at less than $100,000. Thirty are between $100,000 and $1 million; 42 are between $1 million and $10 million, and 19 are over $10 million. Three report more than $100 million in assets: Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va., Jay Rockefeller D-W.Va., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.

How does personal wealth affect how senators raise money? Group the data by net worth, and color by “Industries” -> “Leadership PACs.” You’ll see that the least wealthy senators depend more on their colleagues for campaign finance. Switch “Industries” to “Lawyers/ Law Firms” or “Securities & Investment” to see this trend reversed. Presumably, the wealthiest senators know many wealthy lawyers and investment bankers personally.

What else correlates with personal wealth? Our tool allows you to see that older senators are wealthier, and that two of the three wealthiest senators are Ivy League graduates (as compared to 16 percent of all senators).

Protestants and Catholics, lots of lawyers, and more on how to use this tool

Or say you were curious about religion: how many senators are Catholic? How many are Mormon? How many are Jewish? The answer: 27 Catholic, 10 Jewish, seven Mormon. There’s also one Buddhist (Mazie Hirono (D – HI)). Most of the rest are Protestants. Not a single senator identifies as an atheist. Want to see for yourself? The tool above can be customized using the “Group By” and “Color By” dropdown menus. Try changing “Group By” to “None” and “Color By” to “Religion” – now you can mouse over a dot to see which Senator it represents.

Or say you want to know: how many lawyers? Well, 58 of 100 senators graduated from law school (“Color By” -> “Highest Degree Earned”). And 49 of those practiced as lawyers at some point (“Color By” -> “Profession” -> “Lawyer”).

By comparison, less than one half of one percent of the U.S. population is licensed as lawyers. Also, on the subject of lawyers, you can easily see that 75 of the 100 Senators count “Lawyers and Law Firms” as one of their top three sources of campaign funds. That’s heads and shoulders above any other sector of the economy. Securities and Investment is next at 40 senators. Health Professionals is third at 27.

In the above examples, we looked at breakdowns of the senate by a single variable, represented through color. But as should be clear by now, our tool lets you group by one variable, and color by another. Try this: go back to “Color By” -> “Profession” -> “Lawyer” but now change the “Group By” menu (which in the above examples stayed at the default of “None”) to “Religion.” Now you see that of the 27 Catholic senators, 16 used to be lawyers, five of the seven Mormon senators, and just three of the ten Jewish senators.

And much more…

Or say you are just generally interested in personal wealth, and want to let chance be your guide. If you’re grouped by net worth, you can use the “Random” menu to color by a random variable (or the inverse: keep color fixed and create random groups). Or, if you don’t know where to start exploring, you can select “Random Pair” for two randomized variables.

We encourage you to seek out your own correlations in the data. We’ve started exploring ourselves, and here are some pairings you might find interesting:

As usual, we’ve made all the bulk data powering this available for download. Click here

Keep this bookmarked

We hope you will bookmark this tool for future use. Say you’re discussing politics with your friends and you want to impress them by knowing how many senators were former governors (8). Or how many were former mayors (10).  Or how many got an Ivy League education (16). You can consult our tool.

Or say you are a political reporter or a high school government teacher, and you need to pull up these kinds of random fun facts at an instant: You can consult our tool.

Or say you are a citizen who just cares about who is representing you in the U.S. Senate. You can consult our tool.

Here is the permanent link to the interactive graphic.

How we made this

The data on senators’ backgrounds mostly comes from the Bioguide website. We’ve also added campaign finance data from Influence Explorer, and additional data on committee assignments from the the unitedstates project on Github, and ideology data from Voteview. We’ve put it all together so that you can better understand the Senate as a group of 100 individuals, with different backgrounds and different histories and different loyalties.

Thanks to Amy Cesal for her help with the graphics.