Grade for Nation’s Lawmakers Drops to a Dismal D In Annual Experts’ Survey on Congress’s Performance

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The job performance of Congress has slipped from bad to worse, in the opinion of a group of academic experts from across the country who were asked to evaluate the institution by the Indiana University Center on Representative Government. From a C-minus in 2015, Congress slipped to a grade of D for 2016. 

“A very sizable majority of the experts think Congress’s record was extremely poor over the past year,” said Edward G. Carmines, who is Distinguished Professor, Warner O. Chapman Professor of Political Science and Rudy Professor at Indiana University.

What’s more, the preponderant view among the experts is that the worse is yet to come. In response to the question, “Overall, do you see signs from this past year that Congress will be working better in the future?”  52 percent replied “things will get worse,” while only 12 percent said “things will get better.”

That’s a markedly gloomier outlook than a year ago, when Paul Ryan had fairly recently succeeded John Boehner as House Speaker. Then, 33 percent of the experts thought things would be better, and only 11 percent expected worse.

“The view the experts had at the end of 2015 that things would get better was not realized,” said Carmines. “Their hopes were dashed” by the contentious, election-year second session of the 114th Congress.

In the 2015 survey, only 15 percent of the experts said they thought polarization in Congress would increase. But in the 2016 survey, almost 40 percent predict more intense polarization ahead. “It’s not very encouraging,” said Carmines.

Congress hit D-grade depths on four measurements: “protecting its powers from presidential encroachment,” “keeping the role of special interests within proper bounds,” “fulfilling its national policymaking responsibilities,” and “considering the long-term implications of policy issues, not just short term.”

Also, the House earned a grade of D-minus on “keeping excessive partisanship in check,” as more than half the experts gave the House a flunking F on that measure. The Senate fared only a little better; its 2016 performance restraining excessive partisanship was gauged a D-plus.

Nearly 60 percent of the experts described incivility in Congress as “a major problem.”

“Contemporary members of Congress are very good at attacking political opponents, but not so adept at governing,” said Lee Hamilton, who served 34 years in the House and is now a distinguished scholar at Indiana University and a senior advisor to its Center on Representative Government. “But what we’ve seen in recent years on Capitol Hill does not need to be the future. Congress can get things done. It takes the right kind of legislators — individuals willing to negotiate, compromise, and forge a consensus from the vastly different points of view that are inevitable in a diverse nation.”

The 2016 survey showed a glimmer of improvement in one performance measurement: On the question, “Does Congress exercise its proper role in setting the legislative agenda?” experts gave a C-plus grade, up from a C in 2015.

“This area will be interesting to watch in 2017, with Congress and the White House in the hands of the same party for the first time in six years,” said Michael M. Sample, IU vice president for public affairs and government relations and director of the Center on Representative Government. “Will the 115th Congress be subservient to executive power, or will legislators be assertive in dealing with the new president and take a more independent posture in policymaking?”

In the 11 years the Center has conducted the experts’ survey, members of Congress generally have gotten decent marks on keeping in touch with the public. This was again the case in 2016, 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 B-minus grade from the experts.

Several questions in the annual survey ask the experts to assess the public’s knowledge of and interaction with Congress. In the history of the survey, the public has never rated highly, and the results for 2016 fit the pattern.

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.” The public got a C-minus for “voting in congressional elections,” and C grades for “working through groups that share their interests to influence Congress” and for “contacting their members of Congress on issues that concern them.” 

The experts also were critical of the job the media and the education system do in informing the citizenry about Congress. “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 2016 were collected online in December and January, after the 114th Congress adjourned; the survey elicited the opinions of a select group of 33 top academic experts on Congress from around the country. Click here to see the survey questions and results.