Summer 2008 Newsletter
From the Director...
Dear Fellow Citizens:
Maintaining our representative democracy is the responsibility of each new generation of Americans. Our system of government does not function on automatic pilot. Just because it has worked in the past does not mean we are guaranteed a free and successful country. To achieve this, we need a citizenry committed to participation in the political process that goes well beyond simply voting. We need debate, compromise, a healthy system of checks and balances, and an electorate willing to hold those in power to account.
During this election season, it's all well and good to inquire aggressively about how well the candidates are prepared for public office. But remember also to turn the inquiry inward and ask how well we are prepared to accept the responsibility that comes with being an American: to help make our system work.
This edition of the Center on Congress newsletter provides highlights of our efforts to teach Americans about Congress' vital role in our democracy, and to spur young people and adults to be mindful of their obligations as citizens and take an active part in the governing of our nation.
I invite you to examine our resources and join us in fostering an informed electorate that understands our system of government and participates in civic life.
With warm regards,
Lee H. Hamilton
Master civics teachers from across the nation came to Washington, D.C., July 7-10 for intensive training in using the curricular materials produced by the Alliance for Representative Democracy, an educational initiative of the Center on Congress, the Center for Civic Education, and the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The Professional Development Leadership Seminar equipped the master teachers to lead teams of other teachers who will conduct state and local workshops explaining how to use Alliance materials in the classroom.
The goal of the Alliance is to enhance the public's understanding of and appreciation for the institutions of representative democracy and to promote competent and responsible citizen participation.
More than 120 master teachers attended the Washington seminar, which featured presentations by a number of noted experts in government and civic affairs, including:
- Anthony Corrado, Professor of Government at Colby College, who set out the philosophical foundations of representative democracy in America and how they have shaped current-day institutions;
- Thomas Mann, Senior Fellow at The Brookings Institution, who spoke on how the competing influences of parties, money, interest groups, the media and public opinion naturally promote conflict in Congress and the political process;
- Wyoming State Rep. Rosie Berger and Texas State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, who talked about the knowledge, skills and dispositions that Americans should have in order to understand and participate in the state legislative process;
- Donald Ritchie, Associate Historian of the U.S. Senate, and Fred Beuttler, Deputy Historian of the U.S. House of Representatives, who explained the unique characteristics and responsibilities of each legislative chamber;
- Center on Congress Director Lee Hamilton, who emphasized the importance of teaching young people about the essential and difficult role that Congress plays in our system of government — "listening to and understanding the hopes, dreams and desires of our diverse country, and then translating that into policy."
The Alliance for Representative Democracy is funded by the U.S. Department of Education under the Education for Democracy Act approved by Congress.
An animated narration of the popular kids' book "House Mouse, Senate Mouse" can now be viewed online at www.democracykids.org.
Co-authored by Cheryl Shaw Barnes and Peter Barnes, the "House Mouse, Senate Mouse" book is about an imaginary society of mice in the United States with a government that operates like our own. The members of the mouse House and Senate work in a miniature mouse Capitol building, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
The story, narrated for Democracy Kids by Cheryl Barnes, follows the deliberation on an idea first proposed by a second grade class in "Moussouri" — a bill to establish a National Cheese.
"House Mouse, Senate Mouse" and its companion books — "Woodrow the White House Mouse," and "Marshall the Courthouse Mouse" — use rhyming verse, friendly mouse characters and colorful illustrations to entertain children as they explain the three branches of the U.S. government.
The Democracy Kids website presents information on Congress, state legislatures and other institutions of representative democracy through a variety of interactive games and other activities that entertain students as they learn. The Center on Congress developed Democracy Kids in conjunction with the Center for Civic Education and the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The addition of the "Mouse" narration to Democracy Kids gives teachers an online resource on government that will appeal to even the youngest students. In the curriculum guide to their books, the Barneses explain why it is important to reach this audience: "Children must learn early on about their government in a positive way, to start preparing them for good citizenship and participation. We want them interested in issues and politics when they are young so that when they grow up, they will read, debate, vote, care, become active in their communities and perhaps run for political office themselves."
While Americans acknowledge that there are substantial shortcomings in the public's knowledge of and engagement with Congress, this doesn't restrain them from taking an extremely negative view of the legislative branch, according to a public opinion survey commissioned by the Center on Congress and released in July.
Asked to grade Americans on "following what is going on in Congress," 71 percent of survey respondents gave the citizenry either a D or F. And on "contacting members of Congress on issues that concern them," 69 percent of those surveyed gave citizens either a D or F.
"The public doesn't believe it lives up to its civic responsibilities, but it is even more negative in evaluating the performance of Congress," said Edward G. Carmines, Director of Research for the Center on Congress.
Survey respondents were asked to grade Congress' performance in seven areas, and by far the most frequent grades given were D's and F's. Seventy-seven percent of those surveyed gave Congress a D or F on "controlling the influence of special interests" and almost as many (74 percent) gave Congress a D or F on "holding its members to high ethical standards."
Even the areas in which the public was most generous in its grading of Congress — "carrying out effective oversight of the President and executive branch" and "conducting its business in a careful, deliberate way" — 63 percent gave Congress either a D or F.
The public's dim view of Congress as an institution brightens little when people are questioned on the integrity of individual members. Asked, "Are members of Congress honest people, of good character," only five percent of respondents said "almost all" are honest, and 42 percent said "few are honest." The remaining 53 percent said "some are honest."
When those surveyed were given five characteristics — honesty, positions on issues, good judgment, religious convictions, and ability to get things done — and asked to rank what they look for in a member of Congress, honesty came out far ahead. It was rated a 1 (most important) or 2 by 80 percent of respondents. Good judgment was rated a 1 or 2 by 48 percent, and positions on issues a 1 or 2 by 47 percent. Trailing in importance were ability to get things done (rated a 1 or 2 by 17 percent) and religious convictions (rated a 1 or 2 by nine percent).
One bit of good news for Congress is that a large majority of the public (88 percent) thinks the national legislature has a "major impact" or at least "some impact" on their lives.
However, 51 percent think Congress does not "listen and care about" what people like them think, and 90 percent think Congress "listens more to the lobbyists" than to "the voters back home." In a similar vein, 82 percent of respondents said that members of Congress contact them "only around election time," not "regularly."
The survey evidence suggests that one way to close the communications gap would be for members to make more use of online outreach tools. Seventy-three percent of respondents said they would more likely use an online survey than a mail-in questionnaire if members of Congress wanted to get their opinions on issues. And 63 percent said they would more likely participate in an online, virtual forum than attend a public meeting held by a member of Congress.
The findings are based on a March 2008 survey of 1000 people nationwide conducted by the Internet polling firm Polimetrix, as part of a yearlong, multi-phase public opinion study of the 2008 elections. For complete survey data, go to www.centeroncongress.org.
Two veteran House members — Wisconsin Democrat David R. Obey and Ohio Republican Ralph Regula — are the 2008 recipients of the Center's Congressional Education Award, given annually to honor outstanding leadership in promoting public understanding of Congress, representative democracy and responsible citizenship.
Obey has served in Congress since 1969 and is currently chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and its subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. Regula, who entered the House in 1973, was chairman of two Appropriations subcommittee when the GOP held the majority — Interior, and then Labor-HHS-Education — and is currently ranking Republican on the Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee.
At a July 28 ceremony in Washington, Center Director Lee Hamilton noted that while Obey and Regula are from different parties, "in Congress they work together with a deep respect for the ideal of debating issues and then resolving disagreements to further the common good. They each hold and articulate their views with commitment, even passion. But they understand that at the end of the day they have to help make the country work."
Hamilton commended Obey and Regula's "exceptional dedication to the cause of civic education," noting their staunch support of the Education for Democracy Act, which funds domestic and international civic education programs that reach an estimated 5 million students annually.
"Thanks to the leadership and support of Dave and Ralph, students are gaining important knowledge about the fundamental values and principles of our constitutional democracy, and learning skills vital to effective participation in the civic arena, including civility, tolerance, and respect for the rule of law," Hamilton said.
Hamilton In as National Advisory Committee Co-Chair
Of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools
Broadening the scope of the Center's efforts to help young people understand and participate in their representative government, Center Director Lee Hamilton has become co-chair of the National Advisory Committee of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools. Hamilton serves as co-chair with two other prominent proponents of civic education: former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer.
The Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools is a coalition of 40 organizations committed to improving the quality and quantity of civic learning in American schools. The Campaign's goal is to increase and improve civic learning in grades K-12 by working for policies that implement the recommendations of the Civic Mission of Schools report. This includes efforts to bring about changes in national, state, and local education policy. To learn more about the Campaign, see www.civicmissionofschools.org.
"Politics on Campus" is the theme of the Spring/Summer edition of Indiana University's Teaching & Learning magazine, and among its articles are two features of particular note to the Center on Congress.
One, "From Jimmy Carter to John McCain," is a feature on Edward G. Carmines, the Center's Director of Research, whom the magazine says has "taught a presidential election class for nearly three decades, but hasn't lost any of his enthusiasm for his students or for the ever-changing subject."
Also in the issue is "Revolutionizing Civics Education," a comprehensive look at the educational products, products and programs of the Center, which the magazine says "makes the democratic process relevant to elementary and secondary school students throughout Indiana and beyond."
For texts of these features and all the other articles in the magazine, go towww.indiana.edu/~tandlpub/
Teaching & Learning magazine features stories about innovative classroom practices at Indiana University-Bloomington, focusing on both the instructor and student perspectives.
Center Director Lee Hamilton was the keynote speaker at a symposium entitled "Education for Civic Responsibility: An Essential Goal," held July 30 in Washington.
The symposium was presented by a partnership of organizations sharing the view that a complete education for all students must include education for civic responsibility. The partners are the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, the National Council for the Social Studies, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, and the National Education Association, which hosted the symposium at its headquarters.
"There isn't any greater responsibility than preparing the next generation of Americans to accept positions of leadership," Hamilton said. He called for a commitment in the schools to civic education, character education, and education encouraging public service, and he also urged todays leaders to recognize the potential and tap the energy of young people. "We learn from these young people optimism and creativity and enthusiasm, and new ways of working at old questions we've struggled with. We learn about new horizons ahead, and the new forms that freedom will take."
- Findings from the Center's 2006 Survey on Congress are the basis of a just-published book, "Fault Lines: Why the Republicans Lost Congress." Ted Carmines, leader of the Center's congressional survey work, is a contributor to the book, and Center Director Lee Hamilton wrote the book's foreword.
In one chapter of the book, titled "Americans' Perceptions of the Nature of Governing," contributors John R. Hibbing, Elizabeth Theiss-Morse, and Eric Whitaker commend the "key financial and organizational role" that Center Director Lee Hamilton and Indiana University played in the Congressional Election Study upon which the book is based, praising Hamilton's "longstanding concern with the public image of Congress specifically, and representative government generally."
"Fault Lines" is one in a series of books published by Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group entitled "Controversies in Electoral Democracy and Representation." The books present cutting-edge scholarship and innovative thinking on topics related to elections, voting behavior, party and media involvement, representation, and democratic theory.
- C-SPAN's Campaign 2008 Bus campus tour made a stop in Bloomington May 22, and Center Director Lee Hamilton dropped in for a visit. The Campaign 2008 tour features two buses that visit communities, schools and political events around the country to "inform voters, empower teachers [and] enrich civics education," according to C-SPAN. The buses are equipped with multi-media demonstration centers and TV production units that can be used as studios during live programs.
- Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Center Director Lee Hamilton appeared together in July to discuss the major public policy decisions facing the United States in the next five to 10 years. Their discussion was hosted by the National Conference of State Legislatures and held at the NCSL's Legislative Summit in New Orleans. Hamilton and Gingrich discussed what is needed to move America beyond gridlock to solve the most pressing issues — including health care, education, immigration, and the environment — with innovation and originality.
About the Center
The Center on Congress is a non–partisan, educational institution established in 1999 to help improve the public's understanding of Congress and to encourage civic engagement. The Center offers an extensive array of programs, projects and resources that foster an informed electorate which understands our system of government and participates in civic life. These include: print publications; Web–based, interactive modules and other online learning tools in English and Spanish; commentaries for newspapers, radio stations, podcasts and a Weblog; video and television in the classroom resources; survey research; teacher awards; and seminars, conferences, and a lecture series.
The Center on Congress
1315 E. 10th St.,Suite 320
Bloomington, IN 47405
Phone: (812) 856-4706 Fax: (812) 856-4703