Among the misinformation that's toxic to the healthcare debate, FOX News' Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and others seem determined to prove that Democrats in Congress will destroy American business because, lacking business experience themselves, they just don't "get it."
I've spent the weekend pouring through the Almanac of American Politics 2010, and here's what I've come up with:
Among Democratic Members of the House, 26.5% have direct business experience. There are more attorneys -- about 35%. Two Members have been both business leaders and practicing attorneys.
House Republicans are skewed in the other direction: 45% in business, only 25% in law. Three Republican Members have worked in both.
In the Senate, 17% of Democrats (including Independent Sens. Lieberman and Sanders) have business experience. About 45% are attorneys. Most of the other Senate Democrats were engaged in local or state politics, government service, or academia before their election.
For the 40 Senate Republicans, about half were practicing lawyers, and one-third have business experience.
These statistics on Congress lead to a few observations:
First, it's been over 150 years since Alexis de Tocqueville devoted part of Democracy in America to arguing that lawyers "fill the legislative assemblies," but today his analysis remains true. America is a nation governed by lawyers (look no further than President Obama). Almost half of Senators were first practicing attorneys. In the House, there are just a few more businessmen and businesswomen than attorneys. On the whole, I'd say that this is a good thing: I want lawyers to have input in making laws.
Second, despite there being so many lawyers and businesspeople, both chambers of Congress -- and especially the House -- are professionally diverse. There are farmers, sheriffs, professors, physicians, lobbyists, real estate brokers, insurance salespersons, teachers, and mayors.
There are some very interesting biographies: Rep. Heath Shuler (D-NC) was a quarterback in the NFL. Rep. John Kline (R-MN), a Marine, carried the "football" for Presidents Carter and Reagan. Rep. Tom Perriello (D-VA) served as a national security consultant in Kosovo, Darfur, and Afghanistan. Rep. David Price (D-NC) was a political science professor at Yale and Duke. And Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL), as a researcher at Fermilab, helped discover the top quark, the heaviest known form of matter, and designed a particle accelerator. Rep. Foster also founded a theater lighting company that now supplies half of all theater lighting equipment in the United States.
So in addition to ideological and geographical differences, another explanation for the differences of opinion in Congress must be the diversity of professional experiences. Whereas at an accountants' convention, for example, everyone has similarities in education and knowledge base, in Congress many Members have totally different professional perspectives.
Finally, and most importantly, the next time you hear a friend accuse Congressional Democrats of just not "understanding business," please correct him or her. Congressional Republicans may have more businessmen and businesswomen in their corner, but the Democrats have plenty in theirs -- and some very accomplished ones at that.
(A note on methodology: I applied a uniform standard to Democrats and Republicans, noting any involvement in helping found or run a business in the "professional career" section of each biography. When there was ambiguity, I looked online for a more extensive biography. I recognize, of course, that there are many ways to gain business experience besides involvement in the corporate world, and also that I've likely overlooked more than a few Members of Congress.)