Culture of Political “Eye-Poking” on Capitol Hill Yields Poor Ratings for Congress in Center Survey

BLOOMINGTON, Ind., March 5 — With yet another public opinion survey showing Congress to be wildly unpopular — a newly released poll by the IU Center on Congress shows 86 percent disapproving of the national legislature’s performance — the question arises, could Congress’s standing with the public fall even further in 2015, or are there prospects for improvement?

“There are areas of overlap in terms of the policy priorities of President Obama and the Republican Congress,” said Indiana University political scientist Edward G. Carmines, who is Director of Research for the Center. He cites trade, infrastructure spending, reform of the criminal code and possibly tax reform as issues on which “there is potential for a more collaborative relationship between the Congress and the President.

“If the focus could be on these kinds of issues, then I think there could be some buildup of trust between the President and the Congress, and they actually could get some things done. The problem is, up to this point, the Republican-controlled Congress has emphasized things that Democrats in Congress can’t go along with, and that the President would surely veto if they turn up on his desk, as we saw with the Keystone Pipeline legislation,” said Carmines.

“There ought to be things that the Congress can do — if it works at it. But there is so much focus on the most divisive issues, there is such a poisoned feeling between Republicans and Democrats, and so much anti-Obama feeling — in the House especially — that Congress often looks like a place where people are just overwhelmed by the need to poke each other in the eye.”

By a 56 to 44 percent majority, respondents to the Center’s survey said members of Congress should “compromise with their opponents in order to get something done” rather than “stand up for their principles no matter what.” Sixty percent of those surveyed said that “polarization, or the movement of members of the two parties to the ideological extremes, is a big problem for the functioning of Congress.” Nearly 60 percent said “incivility in Congress” is a “major problem.”

Carmines said the Center’s survey, conducted in late 2014, shows a troubling public attitude of “weariness and disconnect” with Congress. “When you ask what’s responsible for delays and gridlock in Congress, two-thirds of those surveyed say it’s because members of Congress just like to bicker and score political points. Only 34 percent say it’s because there are serious differences on the issues.”

There’s more bad news for Congress, Carmines noted, in the survey’s questions about trust in political leaders. “Only 29 percent of the people think you can always or almost always trust President Obama to make the right decisions for the country. That’s a poor showing for the executive, but Congress is rated much worse: Republicans in Congress are trusted only 13 percent of the time, and Democrats in Congress only 17 percent of the time. So the parties in Congress are seen as far less trustworthy than the President, in terms of making the right decisions for the country,” Carmines said.

To the statement, “Information from my members of Congress is trustworthy,” 58 percent of those surveyed either somewhat or strongly disagreed.

The negative drumbeat goes on. On the survey question that asked “the main thing that influences what members of Congress do in office,” the two top influences cited were “personal self interest” (40 percent), and “special interests” (37 percent). And to the question “Do members of Congress listen and care about what people like you think?“ 64 percent said “no, not most of the time.”

Asked to grade Congress on a scale of A to F, the public slapped Congress with D grades on a series of performance measures: controlling the influence of special interest groups; holding its members to high standards of ethical conduct; conducting its business in a careful, deliberate way; dealing with key issues facing the country; and keeping excessive partisanship in check.

“One of the takeaways from this survey is that people really do feel disconnected from Congress — the one institution in our national government that is supposed to be most representative of them and their views,” said Carmines. “Consistent across all the various questions is the sense that Congress doesn’t listen, doesn’t pay attention, doesn’t work for the public interest.”

Carmines emphasizes that the public’s lack of confidence in Congress “is not because people feel it isn’t a relevant political institution. We asked, ‘How much of an impact does the work of Congress have on your life?’ and 73 percent said ‘some’ or ‘a great deal.’ But even though most people think Congress is quite relevant to their everyday lives, they just don’t feel Congress delivers in a way that improves their lives.”

The Center’s survey also included questions to gauge the public’s view of its own performance in the civic arena. The grades for the citizenry are only a bit better than those for Congress — D-plusses across the board on ‘following what is going on in Congress,’ ‘contacting members of Congress on issues,’ and ‘being able to get to the core facts on issues before Congress,’ and a C-minus on ‘voting in congressional elections.’

There are glints of recognition in the survey that the public doesn’t make Congress’s job any too easy. To the question, “Would you say that most Americans typically agree on what Congress should do, or are there usually wide differences of opinion?” 83 percent of those surveyed said there are wide differences of opinion. Sixty-four percent said they feel that Americans are as politically polarized, or more polarized, as Congress. And although the legislative process is often faulted as slow and tortured, 82 percent of survey respondents said Congress should “take the time to consider issues thoroughly and carefully” rather than “pass legislation quickly and efficiently.”

Carmines believes that the path to a better public standing for Congress lies in legislators “focusing on those issues where there’s potential for policy compromise, and really trying to get things done.” And he sees time as short: “Before you know it, we’re into the 2016 campaign season, and then nothing will get done. It’s really this year that members of Congress have a chance to focus on issues where they can actually make some progress and get some bipartisan agreement.”

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.

The 2014 findings are based on a nationwide survey of 1000 people conducted in November and December by the internet polling firm YouGov Polimetrix.

To see the survey questions and results, go to http://www.centeroncongress.org/2014-public-opinion-survey

About the Center

The Center on Congress is a non-partisan, educational institution established in 1999 to help improve the public's knowledge of Congress and to encourage civic engagement. The Center developed out of Lee Hamilton's recognition during his 34 years in the U.S. House that Americans should be more familiar with Congress’s strengths and weaknesses, its role in our system of government, and its impact on the lives of ordinary people every day.

An innovator in using technology to make civics instruction interesting and relevant to young people, the Center offers Web-based interactive modules, apps for the iPad, and other online learning tools in English and Spanish. Hamilton writes twice-monthly commentaries for newspapers, and the Center’s portfolio includes booklets and books on Congress and citizenship; video and television in the classroom resources; survey research; teacher awards; and seminars, conferences, and a lecture series.