Amplifying Women’s Congressional Power
Dr. Maya Kornberg has spent a lot of time thinking about congressional committees and the role they play in the way legislatures do business. I spoke with her after the publication of her Newsweek op-ed earlier this year in which she elaborated on the fact that, since the 118th U.S. Congress convened in January, men named “Mike” now outnumber women two-to-one among committee chairs. The piece pushes past the truism that women are underrepresented in Congress to underscore the point that, once elected, they are even more significantly underpowered.
As a political scientist and research fellow in the Elections and Government Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, Kornberg aims to use research “to advocate for making things more equitable and more democratic” as part of a reform-minded process. Just one intentional downstream effect of this broad research agenda is to enhance women’s influence in public life through advanced understanding, so that when women have a seat at the proverbial table—or on a congressional committee—they have a better chance of sitting at the head of it.
“Committees tell us a lot about the dynamics of power,” Kornberg said, both “between party leadership and individual members” and a broader story about identity and gender, including who wields and “who is left out of power.”
Though she did not undertake her recently published book, Inside Congressional Committees: Function and Dysfunction in Lawmaking, with an explicit focus on gender and American legislative policymaking, the story of women’s relative power in Congress was one of many stories that emerged through that inquiry. Given the historical and political context, “I think that all political science work is looking at stories that are gendered and racialized… there is always a good reason to be applying a gender angle.”
Looking at committees in the United States and abroad, Kornberg has found a clear pattern: Even as women’s representation advances, their influence is blunted by persisting underrepresentation—not only in legislative bodies overall, but in the paucity of key committee leadership roles they occupy once they hold congressional office relative to their numbers in the Chamber.