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Barber: Congress has come a long way, baby

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif., front

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif., front row, center, poses with other female House members on the steps of the House on Capitol Hill in Washington prior to the official opening of the 113th Congress. (Jan. 3, 2013) Credit: AP

Back in September of 1991, Fox TV aired an episode of “The Simpsons” called “Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington.” Lisa takes a trip to the nation’s capital, where a congressman tells her, “Lisa, you’re a doer. And who knows, maybe someday you’ll be a congressman or a senator. We have quite a few women senators, you know.”

“Only two,” says Lisa. “I checked.”

It was true, incredibly: Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kan.) and Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) were the only female senators at the time. The next year, five women were elected to the Senate -- enough to help deem 1992 “The Year of the Woman.”

We’ve come a long way, baby. After today’s swearing in of the 113th Congress, there are a record 20 female senators –- four Republicans and 16 Democrats.

This Congress -- the Senate and House of representative combined -- also has the highest number ever of Hispanic members (31 total). There are 43 African-American members, and seven openly lesbian or gay representatives. The 113th has the first Hindu congresswoman and the first Buddhist senator.

Will the diversity make a difference? Congress suffers from dispiriting approval numbers, and the 112th bunch, whose term ended today, was notably unproductive. As the temporary “fiscal cliff” fix and the delayed Sandy aid-vote show, there’s a lot of unfinished business in Washington -- and many reasons to be pessimistic.

But surely it can’t hurt for the 535 people who represent us in Washington to look a little more like the 315 million of us across the nation.