Experts Surveyed on Congress’s 2015 Performance Give a Low Mark, But Do See Possibilities for Future

BLOOMINGTON, Ind., Feb. 18 — For the third year in a row, a group of academic experts who were asked to evaluate Congress’s performance gave the institution a grade of C-minus.

“A fairly low opinion of the way Congress operates,” said Edward G. Carmines, who is Distinguished Professor, Warner O. Chapman Professor of Political Science and Rudy Professor at Indiana University. 

There is, however, a positive glint in the 2015 survey findings: “When we asked the experts if they saw any signs in the past year that Congress would be working better in the future, 33 percent thought things actually would get better.” That’s almost twice the percentage that reported hopeful feelings about Congress a year ago.

“This may have to do with what the experts expect from the 2016 elections,” Carmines said. “It may have to do with the replacement of John Boehner by Paul Ryan in the House speakership.” For whatever reason, “there is somewhat more optimism than one would have thought, given the mostly negative evaluations of Congress.”

“Congress is seriously underperforming,” said Lee Hamilton, who served 34 years in the U.S. House of Representatives and is now a distinguished scholar and professor of practice at Indiana University. “On the other hand, we should not be completely negative about Congress. There is some optimism among these experts that the institution, with proper reforms, is at least capable of having a better process to conduct its business.”

In the ten years the Center has conducted this annual survey, the overall ratings from the experts have never been anything for Congress to brag about; the highest mark, C-plus, was reached in 2008 and 2010.

For 2015, 47 percent of the experts issued a grade of either D or F in response to the question, “Overall, how would you assess the legislative record of Congress over this past year?” Sixty-five percent gave a grade of D or F on the question, “Does Congress consider the long-term implications of policy issues, not just short-term?” The experts were only slightly more kind, giving average grades of C-minus, on the questions, “How well does Congress rely on facts and data to reach its decision?” and “Does conflict in Congress reflect substantive differences, rather than political game-playing?”

As in the past, the 2015 survey included questions asking the experts to separately evaluate each of the two chambers of Congress. The results showed continuation of a pattern of the House being graded more harshly than the Senate. The House consistently got low marks on: the extent to which it allows the minority to play an appropriate role (House C-minus, Senate B); the extent to which it follows good process in conducting its business (House C-minus, Senate C); whether there is a proper level of compromise (House D-plus, Senate C); and whether excessive partisanship is held in check (House D, Senate C-minus).

“On all these questions, the scores for the Senate, though not high, are more positive than for the House. According to these experts, the House has a ways to go before it can be more a capable and fair institution,” said Carmines.

Through the years, the experts generally have felt that members of Congress do a decent job keeping in touch with the public. This was again the case in 2015, with the survey’s highest grade, a B, coming on the question, “Do legislators make a good effort to be accessible to their constituents?” The question, “Does Congress make its workings and activities open to the public?” drew a C-plus grade from the experts.

But on most other performance measures, the grades given were in the C range, or lower. “Does Congress keep the role of special interests within proper bounds?” drew a C-minus, as did “Does Congress protect its powers from presidential encroachment?” On the question, “Does Congress exercise its proper role in the decision to go to war?” the grade was a D.

One section of the annual survey asks the experts to assess the public’s knowledge of and interaction with Congress. In the ten-year history of the survey, the public has never received high marks, and the same was the case for 2015.

The public got across-the-board D grades for “understanding the main features of Congress and how it works,” “following what is going on in Congress on a regular basis,” and “understanding the role of compromise in Congress,” and a C-minus for “voting in congressional elections.” 

The experts gave citizens C grades for “contacting their members of Congress on issues that concern them” and for “working through groups that share their interests to influence Congress.”

“The experts also were critical of the job the media and the education system do in informing the citizenry about Congress,” said Carmines. “How well does the media coverage of Congress contribute to the public’s understanding of Congress?” drew a D-plus grade, and “How well does our educational system provide students with a good understanding of the role of Congress in our representative democracy?” drew a C-minus.

Data on 2015 were collected online in late December and early January, after the first session of the 114th Congress adjourned; the survey elicited the opinions of a select group of 28 top academic experts on Congress from around the country. Survey questions and results are at http://centeroncongress.org/2015-political-scientists-survey.