Experts Surveyed on Congress’s Performance Give The Institution a “C-minus” for 2014

BLOOMINGTON, Ind., Feb. 3 — For the second straight year, a group of academic experts who were asked to evaluate Congress’s performance gave the institution a barely-passing grade of C-minus.

“This is a dismal assessment,” said Indiana University political scientist Edward G. Carmines, who is Director of Research for the Center on Congress at Indiana University.

The C-minus grade for 2014 is the same mediocre mark the institution earned in 2013. In the Center’s nine-year series of annual evaluations of Congress, this is the first time that both sessions of a Congress have been rated so poorly.

The experts’ overall ratings have never been anything for Congress to brag about; the highest mark, C-plus, was reached in 2008 and 2010. But that looks lofty compared to the 113th Congress’s two-year dwell in the cellar of C-minuses.

“We asked, ‘Overall, how would you assess the legislative record of Congress over this past year?’” said Carmines. “Eighty-six percent gave Congress either a D or an F for 2014 — worse even than the 80 percent who rated Congress either D or F for 2013.”

Data on 2014 were collected online in late December and early January, after the second session of the 113th Congress adjourned; the survey elicited the opinions of a select group of 30 top academic experts on Congress from around the country.

“Our interest is not to dwell on past shortcomings, but to develop a sense of what areas are most in need of improvement, as well as what areas are generally handled well by Congress,” explained Center Director Lee Hamilton.

There were a few bright spots for Congress. The experts gave members a B grade on “being accessible to their constituents,” and B-minus grades on “making their workings and activities open to the public,” and on “broadly reflecting the interests of their constituents.”

“In terms of Congress being a representative and open institution, the experts believe it’s attained some high level of performance,” said Carmines. “It’s not all gloom and doom.”

But, added Carmines quickly, “it’s mostly gloom and doom.” On a range of other performance measures, the experts held Congress in extremely low esteem. 

“The experts rated the entire Congress very low on two questions that ought to be of particular concern to the interested public,” Carmines said. They gave Congress D grades on “fulfilling its national policymaking responsibilities,” and on “dealing with the long-term implications of policy issues, not just the short term.”

Congress landed in the D-plus doldrums on four questions: “relying on facts on data to reach its decisions”; “protecting its powers from presidential encroachment”; “keeping the role of special interests within proper bounds” and “reforming itself sufficiently to keep up with changing needs.”

The survey included questions asking the experts to separately evaluate each of the two chambers of Congress. “Consistently, the House is rated lower in its performance than the Senate,” Carmines said. “On the question of ‘keeping excessive partisanship in check,’ the Senate’s grade was poor (D), but the House’s was worse (D-minus). On the question, ‘Does the legislative process involve a proper level of compromise?’ the House got a D-minus, while the Senate earned a C-minus. On ‘allowing members in the minority to play a role,’ the House got a D, the Senate a C. And on ‘allowing multiple points of view on an issue to be heard,’ the House got a D-plus, the Senate a B-minus.”

As in the past, the 2014 survey included a set of questions asking the experts to assess the public’s knowledge of and interaction with Congress. In the nine-year history of the survey, the public has never received high marks, and the same was the case for 2014.

The public got across-the-board D grades for “following what is going on in Congress on a regular basis,” for “voting in congressional elections,” for “understanding the main features of Congress and how it works,” for “having a reasonable understanding of what Congress can and should do,” and D-plusses for “being able to get to the core facts of issues before Congress” and “understanding the role of compromise in Congress.”

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.”

“There are no B grades on any of the questions we ask about the citizenry,” Carmines said. “They’re all either C’s or D’s. The experts are as negative in their evaluation of the citizenry as they are in their assessment of Congress.”

What’s ahead for the experts’ report card? Have Congress’s grades “bottomed out?”

Carmines speculates: “It really depends on how Sen. McConnell and Speaker Boehner want to frame the issues going forward. What is their top priority? Is it satisfying the most conservative House and Senate members? Or will the leaders of the congressional Republican majority focus on possible areas of compromise with President Obama, and really enact legislation, so that they won’t be seen as just a “say no” party come the 2016 elections?”

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

For more information, go to www.centeroncongress.org.