07/24/2013 09:15 am ET Updated Sep 23, 2013

Fixing Washington: Two New Books on What's Right and Wrong With Congress

Today, public approval of Congress is around 15 percent. A summer of gridlock is clearly not good for the business of Washington or for its popularity. Thankfully, two new books help make some sense of what's right and wrong with Congress.

The first is Women & Congressional Elections: A Century of Change (Lynne Rienner 2013) from Barbara Palmer (Baldwin Wallace University) and Dennis Simon (Southern Methodist University). The authors accumulated a lot of new data on when and where women have run and won: nearly 40,000 candidates in total. Jeannette Rankin was the first women to serve in Congress in 1916, Rebecca Latimer Felton in the Senate in 1922, Shirley Chisholm was the first African American to win an election (1968), and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen the first Hispanic American (1989).

Thanks to these pioneers, women are represented in much greater numbers than in the past, but still, just three states send more than a third of the women currently serving in Congress. This persistent inequality is in part because the conditions for a successful campaign are clustered around a small number of variables: smaller, urban, wealthier, and racially/ethnically diverse districts favor women candidates. Women candidates do not fare well in every district of the country, resulting in some states with a disproportionate share of women representatives.

Most intriguingly, Palmer and Simon find that women face even bigger challenges for re-election. Incumbency, which typically insures an increasingly safe ride through the primaries, does not seem to bring the same safety as for men. Women members of Congress face more opposition from across party lines but also from within their own party during the primary phase. Palmer and Simon unearth why this may be the case.

Despite the persistent under-representation of women in Congress, the trend is positive, and Palmer and Simon demonstrate how the future could continue to trend in that direction in favor of better representation.

The real bad news comes from Andrew Taylor and his Congress: A Performance Appraisal (Westview Press 2013). Taylor is professor of political science at North Carolina State University. Taylor isn't entirely pessimistic about Congress. He finds that many aspects of Congress hold up to his performance appraisal: Congress scores high in transparency, religious representation, concern for local issues.

Others, though, fail miserably. In addition to the under-representation of women, African American and Hispanic American representation is sub-par in the Senate (less so in the House), the rich are over-represented, and illegal and unethical behavior is not rare. One result is the low level of public trust and faith in the institution.

Taylor offers some recommendations for improvement. He suggests greater levels of transparency, improving the re-districting process, and simplification of House and Senate procedures. He concludes with a hope that the new Office of Congressional Ethics (set up in 2007) "should be given an opportunity to work."

Change is slow in Washington, but these two new books can help a better understanding of why change is necessary and may be possible in the future.