As we move deeper into December, the question for Congress is this: Can members of the House and Senate do something to make the public feel more positive about Congress’s competence, or will 2012 end on the familiar note of Americans taking an unrelievedly dim view of Congress’s job performance?
According to data from a public opinion survey sponsored by the Center on Congress at Indiana University, “there’s a quite decided, lopsided disapproval of Congress,” said Edward G. Carmines, the Warner O. Chapman Professor and Rudy Professor of political science at Indiana University in Bloomington. “In our survey, it was 91 percent who disapprove and only 9 percent who approve.
“This is an old story about the modern Congress, but it’s one that bears repeating,” said Carmines. “In almost all areas, the electorate finds the Congress quite wanting. We asked them if they think Congress deals with key issues facing the country; if it keeps excessive partisanship in check; if it conducts the business of the country in a careful and deliberate way; if it holds members to high standards of ethical conduct; if it controls the influence of special interests.
“In each of these areas, the public rates Congress quite low. We asked them to grade Congress between A and F, and in almost every one of these instances, the grade is in the D range.”
When the survey was conducted earlier this fall, public awareness was just beginning to build about the “fiscal cliff” now filling the headlines. “We didn’t ask specifically about the ‘fiscal cliff,’ but we did ask how much compromise should be in play. And very strong majorities told us they prefer Congress to compromise to make good public policy, even in contrast to sticking to their own principles.
“If Congress were able to deal with something like the fiscal cliff in a way that showed compromise, the institution would certainly be held in higher esteem than it is now,” Carmines said. “There’s not much in the survey data showing that the public believes Congress can do that,” he concedes. “But if Congress could compromise, they certainly would gain public support, because that’s what the public’s looking for.”
Carmines said the public does understand that Congress “has a tough job.” Those surveyed recognize “there’s a wide diversity of opinion on most issues that come before Congress. But they don’t think Congress works hard enough to resolve these differences.”
Examining the relationship between citizens and Congress — how people learn about, interact with, and evaluate the institution and its members — has been an important focus for the Center on Congress since its founding in 1999.
The Center regularly conducts public opinion polls to gauge if Americans feel Congress is relevant to their lives and is living up to the framers’ expectation that it should be the responsive “people’s branch” of the federal government. Overseeing this survey work is Professor Carmines, who also is the Center’s director of research.
The 2012 findings are based on a nationwide survey of 1000 people completed in September and October by the internet polling firm YouGov Polimetrix.
Below, Carmines offers his thoughts on other findings of the 2012 survey:
Incivility: “We asked several questions about incivility in Congress, and the news here is not good. People see incivility as a big problem, they think it’s gotten worse over the last several years, and they think it will get worse in the future, instead of getting better.” Who’s to blame? “They don’t believe voters contribute to this. They believe the members themselves, party leaders, the media and political campaigns exacerbate incivility.”
Influence: “The survey asked, “What do you think is the main thing that influences what your members of Congress do in office?” The highest, 49 percent, said ‘special interests.’ Thirty-six percent said members are mainly influenced by their personal self-interest. Far below that, 9 percent said ‘the interest of the people in their state or district,’ and 5 percent ‘the interest of the country as a whole.’ To the question, “Do members of Congress care about what people like you think?” one percent said ‘most of the time’ and 31 percent said ‘sometimes.’ A whopping 67 percent said, ‘No, not very often.’”
Citizenship: “Not only do those surveyed hold Congress in low regard, but also, when we asked them to evaluate their own performance as citizens — do they follow what’s going on in Congress, do they contact members on issues that concern them, do they vote in presidential and congressional elections — they also give the public pretty low marks. We haven’t seen this in some of the earlier surveys we’ve done; those showed that average citizens felt they didn’t have much responsibility for what went on in Congress.”
Communication: “There’s a growing recognition of the importance of social media. People believe it’s important now for members of Congress to develop a good website, to use online questions and surveys, to participate in Facebook and Twitter, to have regular email contact with their constituents. It’s not that they downplay the traditional — town hall meetings, and mailings and so forth — but added to this is what they see as an obligation now that members of Congress be highly involved in social media and other online outreach.”
Impact: “Our survey found that people continue to see Congress as a very relevant and highly consequential institution, one with a lot of effect on their daily lives. They believe that Congress and the President in almost all areas — whether you’re talking about the budget, or setting the agenda, or declaring war, or anything, really, of national importance — that it’s the Congress AND the President that ought to share responsibility. So, Congress is quite relevant to ordinary voters. But they also believe Congress is a dysfunctional institution.”
The Center on Congress is supported in part by the Office of the Vice Provost for Research at Indiana University-Bloomington. For more information about the Center, go to www.centeroncongress.org.