From the Hill: Catholics in Congress

The Roman Catholic Church is well represented in the U.S. Congress. Of the 435 members of the House in this 98th session, 124 acknowledge their religious affiliation as Catholic. Thirty-seven of the members are in the Republican Party and ninety-seven are in the Democratic Party.

While Catholics represent roughly 26% of the total Congress, the largest single denomination of any religion by almost a two to one margin, the influence of the Church appears evident in the structure of the House, but, vague when examining member voting records.

The structure of the House currently benefits Catholics in two ways. First, since House rules virtually give the majority party, the Democrats, unchecked power in selecting individuals for House leadership and committee chairmanships, the greater number of Catholic Democrats give them a better chance to be selected than non-Catholics. Thirty-six percent of the Democrats in Congress are Catholic.

Second, the use of the seniority system magnifies this effect. Catholic Democrats representing safe congressional districts can serve in the Congress, building years of seniority. The seniority implicitly allows members better committee choices. It often gives them their first choice for committee assignments; junior members then divide up the remaining positions to be filled. Catholics benefit from this system because Catholic Democrats generally have more seniority as a religious group.

The Speaker of the House, Rep. Thomas “Tip” O’Neill (D-Massachusetts), is Catholic. He has served in the House since 1952 when he was elected to the seat held by John F. Kennedy. As Speaker, he controls the legislation which ultimately reaches the floor.

The Majority Whip, number three in the House hierarchy, is, also, Catholic. Rep. Thomas Foley (D- Washington) came to Congress in 1965. Rep. Foley has the responsibility as Majority Whip to poll members of the majority on support for legislation. He, also, is very influential in agricultural policy, having served as the Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee from 1975 to 1981.

But while the Speaker determines what legislation comes to the House floor, and the Majority Whip polls Democrats on their position on legislation, it is the committee chairmen who determine which issues are translated into legislation. Forty-nine percent of the committee chairmen are Catholic:

Agriculture — Kika Dela Garza (D-Texas)

Armed Services — Melvin Price (D-Illinois)

Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs — Fernand St. Germain (D-Rhode Island)

Budget — James Jones (D-Oklahoma)

Energy and Commerce — John Dingell (D-Michigan)

Foreign Affairs — Clement Zablocki (D-Wisconsin) Judiciary — Peter Rodino (D-New Jersey)

Public Works and Transportation — James Howard (D-New Jersey)

Ways and Means — Dan Rostenkowski (D-Illinois)

Perhaps the three most important committees in the House are included in this list. The House Ways and Means Committee, chaired by Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, heads the group. This committee has the constitutional obligation of initiating all revenue measures for the federal government. It writes the tax laws; it participates in formulating foreign trade policies; it is responsible for the social security system. Most recently, the House Ways and Means Committee overturned legislation which would have withheld tax on interest and dividends.

Rep. James Jones presides over the drafting of the federal budget in the Budget Committee. He is the architect of the budget, formulating a blueprint of spending level targets for each fiscal year. His committee recently had its recommendations for fiscal year 1984 adopted by the House. The Senate has not yet taken action on this legislation.

The third influential committee, the Energy and Commerce Committee, chaired by Rep. John Dingell, has the largest legislative jurisdiction of any committee in the House. It shapes legislation ranging from the Clean Air Act to overseeing the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC). The committee was recently recognized by the Washington Post for its influence in a series of articles published on the Committee and its members.

Only one House committee, equal in status to the previous three does not have a Catholic chairman. The House Appropriations Committee is chaired by a Presbyterian, Rep. Jamie Whitten (D-Mississippi). The Appropriations Committee effectively “holds the purse strings” of the House. Its function is to designate dollars for all programs authorized by other House Committees.

On Appropriations, the ranking minority member, Rep. Silvio Conte (R-Massachusetts) is Catholic. So are two of the thirteen Subcommittee Chairmen: Rep. Edward Boland (D-Massachusetts) on the HUD-Independent Agencies Subcommittee and Rep. Edward Roybal (D- California) on the Treasury-Postal Service-General Government Subcommittee.

Catholics are, also, well represented on the special and select committees in the House. These committees serve a variety of purposes. Most are research arms of political parties, investigative or aimed at supporting general ideological views. These committees and their Catholic Chairmen are:

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — Tony Coelho (D-California)

Democratic Research Organization — James Jones (D-Oklahoma)

Democratic Steering and Policy Committee — Thomas O’Neill (D-Massachusetts)

Democratic Study Group — Matthew McHugh (D-New York)

Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence — Edward Boland (D-Massachusetts)

Select Committee on Aging — Edward Roybal (D- California)

Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families — George Miller (D-California)

Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control — Charles Rangel (New York)

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, known as the D.N.C.C., raises money for Democratic congressional candidates and incumbents. It, also, provides campaign technical assistance. The Democratic Steering and Policy Committee sets the overall policy for Democratic congressmen. The Democratic Study Group, called the D.S.G., issues position papers on legislation coming before the full House for consideration. All three of the previous committees mentioned are left of center politically.

On the Republican side Catholics are not well represented. They neither hold the positions of Minority Leader nor Minority Whip. Both of the men who hold those positions are Protestant. Only 22% of the 166 Republicans currently serving in the House are Catholic. Seventeen of this group of 37 are Catholics who have been elected after 1980

A review of seniority of Republicans further indicates the lack of representation in the G.O.P. membership of the House. Only two men, Rep. Silvio Conte, earlier mentioned as the ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, and Rep. Joseph McDade (R-Pennsylvania), ranking minority member on the House Small Business Committee, rank in the top ten Republican senior members. The Republican surge since 1980, however, does bode well for the future.

The Catholic influence on members, by examining their voting records, appears vague. This can be clearly- demonstrated in two ways. First, the following list of members, with their rating by the politically-right American Conservative Union (ACU) and the politically-left Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), indicate that Catholic Congressmen represent virtually every ideology on the political spectrum. The ratings come from legislation considered in the 97th Congress:

MEMBER (PARTY/STATE)                                  ACU •     ADA*

Henry Hyde (R-Illinois)                                             93%          15%

Tom Harkin (D-Iowa)                                                    7%          95%

Silvio Conte (R-Massachusetts)                             67%          80%

Tip O’Neill (D-Massachusetts)                                   0%

John Dingell (D-Michigan)                                        15%          80%

Claudine Schneider (R-Rhode Island)                  53%         85%

Peter Rodino (D-New Jersey)                                     7%       100%

Dan Lungren (R-California)                                       93%            0%

Bill Archer (R-Texas)                                                100%            0%

*A 100% means complete agreement with the philosophical view of the organization.

Second, direct comparison of Catholics to all members using the ACU and ADA ratings further show a lack of influence. Catholic Democrats tend to vote more liberal than Democrats as a whole. Catholic Republicans tend to vote like Republicans.


Catholics              73.8%

Average               63.4%


Catholic                89.2%

Average               90.2%

Like other members, Catholics tend to vote on party preference, district concerns or for ideological reasons. Since the Church does not have its own rating system for members, the impact of the faith on members remains even more unclear.

Catholics in Congress seem to be a microcosm of the over fifty-four million members of the Church in America. Catholic members influence the legislative process by their presence, yet the impact of the faith on member voting patterns appears insignificant.


  • Vin Weber

    Vin Weber served in Congress from 1980 to 1992, representing Minnesota's Second Congressional District.

Join the Conversation

Comments are a benefit for financial supporters of Crisis. If you are a monthly or annual supporter, please login to comment. A Crisis account has been created for you using the email address you used to donate.

tagged as:
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...