Winter 2008 Newsletter
From the Director...
Dear Fellow Citizens:
2009 marks the tenth anniversary of the founding of the Center on Congress. It has been a busy decade. We set out in 1999 with ambitious goals: 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 am pleased to report that we have expanded the scope of our effort with every passing year. We now offer an array of resources and programs that reach out to a wide variety of Americans — students at the elementary, middle and high school levels; teachers in the social studies; journalists working for print, broadcast and online outlets; college and university scholars of Congress and American politics; people seeking to become U.S. citizens; and concerned citizens of Indiana and the nation.
I hope you will use the Center's resources, participate in our programs, support our efforts to emphasize and improve the teaching of civics, and work with us to foster an informed electorate that understands our system of government and participates in advancing representative democracy.
With warm regards,
Lee H. Hamilton
A key objective of the Center on Congress is to promote good journalism about Congress, in order that citizens may get the information they need to make better-informed judgments and hold their elected officials accountable. To this end, the Center in November 2008 co-sponsored a seminar for journalists in Washington titled, "The New President and Congress," and in January 2009 co-sponsored its fourth annual seminar to help journalists understand the federal budget process and cover the work of Congress as it appropriates funds to run the government.
The November seminar, held two weeks after Barack Obama won the presidential election, analyzed the prospects for cooperation and conflict in executive-legislative relations in 2009, drawing on lessons learned in past transitions of presidential power. Speakers included veteran political reporter and columnist David Broder; James P. Pfiffner, Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University and author of "The Strategic Presidency: Hitting the Ground Running"; Jeanne Cummings of Politico; longtime journalist and author Martin Tolchin; and Donald Wolfensberger, former Chief of Staff of the House Rules Committee and now Director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Co-sponsoring the seminar with the Center on Congress was the National Press Foundation and the Regional Reporters Association. Program resources are atwww.nationalpress.org/programs. The Center joined again with the Press Foundation and the Regional Reporters to present the January 2009 budget seminar, giving journalists practical advice on how to cover the economic, political, personality, and state and local angles of the budget and appropriations process that will unfold during 2009.
Joseph Minarik provided a detailed explanation of the complicated federal budget process, offering insights on how it will be different in this year of transition in the presidency and turmoil in the economy. Minarik is Senior Vice President and Director of Research at the Committee for Economic Development, and a former top staffer with the House Budget Committee and the Office of Management and Budget.
Following him was a panel discussion among experienced budget hands who offered reporters insights and tools for first-day and ongoing reporting of the budget story. Participating were: Bill Allison, Senior Fellow at the Sunlight Foundation; Kerry Young, co-editor of Congressional Quarterly's Budget Tracker; Wolfensberger of the Wilson Center; and moderator Sandy K. Johnson, AARP Executive Editor for State News.
February 23 is the application deadline for individuals who wish to be considered for the 2009 American Civic Education Teacher Awards (ACETA).
The Awards are given annually to elementary and secondary teachers of civics, government and related fields who have demonstrated exceptional expertise, dynamism and creativity in motivating students to learn about Congress, the Constitution, and public policy.
The ACETA program is jointly sponsored by the Center on Congress, the Center for Civic Education, and the National Education Association.
Each year the ACETA program selects and showcases three teachers who are doing exemplary work in preparing young people to become informed and engaged citizens. Applicants must be full-time classroom teachers of grades K-12. The honored teachers receive an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C., in July to participate in an educational program that includes observing floor sessions and committee hearings in Congress, meeting members of Congress and other key officials, and visiting sites such as the National Archives and the U.S. Supreme Court. The winners also are recognized at a national conference of civic educators.
Applications for the 2009 Awards must be postmarked no later than Monday, Feb. 23. There is no fee to apply. In addition to a two-page "self-portrait" essay, applicants must submit three letters of recommendation — two from teaching peers and one from their school principal. The application form is at www.centeroncongress.org
Since the ACETA program was established in 2006, nine teachers have won the award: Sally Broughton (Monforton Elementary School, Bozeman, Mont.); Christopher Cavanaugh (Plainfield High School, Plainfield, Ind.); Cheryl Cook-Kallio (Irvington High School, Fremont, Calif.); Mary Ellen Daneels (Community High School, West Chicago, Ill.); Barbara Simpson Ector (Cleveland Middle School, Cleveland, Tenn.); Kevin Fox (Arcadia High School, Arcadia, Calif.); Julie Kuhnhein (Highlands High School, Fort Thomas, Ky.); Galelyn McElroy (Central High School Magnet Career Academy, Louisville, Ky.); and Donna Paoletti Phillips (Robert Frost Middle School, Rockville, Md.)
Two surveys of public opinion on Congress' performance in 2008 indicated that Americans became somewhat less negative about the legislative branch over the course of the year.
"The public developed a more positive view of Congress' performance," said Edward G. Carmines, Director of Research for the Center on Congress, which commissioned an October poll, and a companion survey in March. "It was only a modest improvement, but it was consistent across several measures."
Congress in the October survey got a passing grade from almost half the public (46 percent) for "overseeing the activities of the President and executive branch." In March, well over 60 percent of people flunked Congress on the oversight question.
Forty-eight percent of those polled in October gave Congress either an A, B, or C grade on "representing America's diverse groups and interests." When the March survey asked the public to grade Congress on "representing the American people," 71 percent slapped Congress with either a D or an F.
The public also credited Congress with improving a bit in five other areas: keeping excessive partisanship in check (seven point improvement); holding its members to high standards of ethical conduct (six points better); controlling the influence of special interest groups (also six points up); and conducting its business in a careful, deliberate way (three points higher).
However, Carmines cautioned that though Congress nudged the public-opinion needle in a positive direction from March to October, it still has very far to go to achieve an overall positive report card from the public.
Even in its highest-rated area — oversight — Congress still got D or F ratings from 54 percent of those polled. On the questions of partisanship, ethics, and special interests, two-thirds or more of the public graded Congress a D or F. And when asked, "Do you believe that members of Congress listen and care about what people like you think?" 68 percent answered "No."
"Even though there was improvement, you'd have to say that the public's overall rating of Congress is still pretty dismal," Carmines said.
Members of Congress can take some comfort in what the October survey learned about the public's views on the role of the legislative branch in the American system of government. When asked, "Which of the three branches of government did the Founding Fathers intend to be the most powerful?" 59 percent of people correctly identified the legislative branch, while 21 percent thought the Founders favored the executive branch and 20 percent the judiciary.
And when asked, "Under our system of government, who was given the main power to set federal spending?" 83 percent correctly named Congress, and only 17 percent said the president.
To the question, "Who was given the main power to declare war?" 60 percent correctly said Congress. But that did leave a sizable 40 percent putting primary war-declaring power in the hands of the president. Carmines speculated that with the media's daily focus on the president's role as Commander-in-Chief of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, an increasing number of people are losing sight of the fact that the Constitution specifically assigns war-declaring power to Congress.
The October poll also indicated the public has a tolerance for Congress being actively engaged in policymaking, not merely being a junior partner to the president. Sixty percent of those polled said that over the past several years, the power of Congress has been "about right" or "too little." A smaller portion of respondents (53 percent) said the power of the president has been "about right" or "too little" in recent years.
The most recent findings were based on an October 2008 survey of 1000 people nationwide conducted by the internet polling firm Polimetrix, as part of a public opinion study of the 2008 congressional elections. For complete survey data, go towww.centerongoncongress.org.
Veteran political journalist Thomas B. Edsall will speak at the IU-Bloomington campus April 7 and 8, a visit sponsored jointly by the Center on Congress and the IU Institute for Advanced Study.
Edsall is political editor of The Huffington Post, and a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 1981 to 2006, he was a political reporter at The Washington Post.
Edsall is the fourth in a series of experts on American politics to lecture in Bloomington about the 2008 congressional and presidential elections. The Center's co-sponsorship of the lectures reflects a commitment to bring to Bloomington prominent figures — from academia, media, government service and other areas — to create a dialogue with students and community members about current issues and Congress.
Historian Robert Dallek, the author of numerous presidential biographies, led off the series in mid-September with a lecture titled "The Making and Unmaking of American Presidents." Later that month came Charles Franklin, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and expert on statistical methods, elections and public opinion, who spoke on "The Shape of the Campaign: Composition and Dynamics in the 2008 Election."
The third visiting lecturer, in mid-October, was Gary C. Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego and expert on congressional elections and American political parties. He spoke on "The Bush Legacy and the 2008 Elections."
Videos of their presentations are available at the website of the Institute for Advanced Study. Go to www.indiana.edu/~ias/pastbran.php.
Congress' work in 2008 merited a solid "C-plus," according to political scientists asked by the Center on Congress to rate the performance of the national legislature. This is one rung higher than the "C" grade that the experts gave Congress in 2007.
"Though Congress still has ample room for improvement, the experts did at least see modest progress," said Center on Congress Research Director Edward G. Carmines.
The Center conducted the survey online, getting a select group of 41 top academic experts on Congress from around the country to grade the institution on 23 questions.
In 2006, when the Center first conducted its experts' survey, Congress' GPA was barely above a D.
Helping pull up the 2008 rating were B-minus grades that the experts gave Congress on two questions: "Does Congress focus on the key issues facing the country?" and "All things considered, how well does Congress represent the American people?" In 2007, Congress drew C-plus grades on those questions.
The experts also bumped Congress up from C-plus to B-minus on "reflecting our nation's diversity," and from B-plus to A-minus on "making a good effort to be accessible to their constituents." Other areas where Congress rated well included "making its workings and activities open to the public" (B), and on seeing to it that "conflict in Congress reflects substantive differences, rather than political game-playing." (B-minus).
But on numerous other criteria, the experts saw little or no improvement in Congress' performance from 2007 to 2008. The 2008 report card was replete with C's, reflecting the experts' judgment that Congress had a passable-but-undistinguished record on "holding members to high standards of ethical conduct," on "passing the federal budget," on "considering the long-term implications of policy issues, not just short-term," and on "protecting its powers from presidential encroachment."
Although both the House and the Senate scored a little better in 2008 on "keeping excessive partisanship in check," their grades on that count were still lackluster C's, the same grade that Congress as a whole earned for its ability to "generally fulfill its national policymaking responsibilities." The experts also took a dim C-view of Congress' ability to "reform itself sufficiently to keep up with changing needs."
Still, after receiving eight D's and 2006 and one D in 2007, Congress in 2008 did well enough to draw no grade lower than a C.
The Center on Congress has an annual tradition of conducting a year-end survey of experts' opinions on the performance of Congress. "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," explains Center Director Lee Hamilton.
The 2008 survey also included a set of questions asking the experts to assess the public's knowledge of and interaction with Congress. "We want to know, are the citizens holding up their end?" said Carmines.
The answer from the experts was that the public has a long way to go. The citizenry got D's on "following what is going on in Congress on a regular basis," on "understanding the main features of Congress and how it works," and on "having a reasonable understanding of what Congress can and should do."
Citizens managed to earn C-plus grades on "voting in congressional elections" and "working through groups that share their interests to influence Congress."
"The experts were quite critical of what the public knows about Congress as a national policymaking institution," said Carmines. "There is much work to be done to help citizens understand Congress and its role in our system of representative democracy." For complete survey data, go to www.centeroncongress.org.
To help students learn basic critical thinking skills, the Center on Congress is developing a new component for its "Teaching with Primary Sources" Web site, which draws on the Library of Congress' storehouse of online primary source material to teach students about Congress, representative democracy, and citizen participation.
The new learning module on the TPS site will challenge students to hone their critical thinking skills by analyzing various historical congressional floor debates.
One section of the new module will present information on the main components of an effective argument, and ask students to identify the types of arguments made in a persuasive statement — such as citing experts, recounting facts and figures, referring to historical precedent, and appealing to the emotions.
In another section, students will respond to a series of questions to analyze one of four actual arguments made by members of Congress on the House of Senate floor. Another section will provide a gallery of eight key congressional statements, from Rep. James Madison on the Bill of Rights to Sen. Everett Dirksen on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The new module also will provide teachers and students with a class workspace for preparing a case on a selected issue before Congress.
The development of "Critical Thinking: Analyzing Congressional Floor Debates" reflects the Center's commitment to continuously improve the TPS site, which was first launched in 2007.
Recent site enhancements include a feature allowing teachers to import their own political cartoons into an interactive learning module. This helps teachers use the TPS site in closer alignment with their curriculum plan; it also can enable students to create their own political cartoon, which can be added to the interactive for class activities. Another site addition lets teachers change the questions in some of the interactives — and insert questions tailored to their curricular needs and standards.
Recognizing that teachers need the site's resources to align with state curriculum standards, the Center's TPS team is working to update the site's standards database.
The Center's TPS staff presented a poster session on the site at the 2008 National Council for the Social Students conference in Houston. The session was well attended, and teachers responded enthusiastically to the site's resources. Staff will host a similar session at the April 2009 NCSS Great Plains Regional Conference.The Center, a leader in the field of online civic education, offers onsite orientation to the TPS site (www.tpscongress.org) to school districts in Indiana and around the country. For more information about this opportunity, contact the Center at firstname.lastname@example.org, or (812) 856-4706.
- Center Director Lee Hamilton was named one of the "25 outstanding public servants who have made significant contributions to achieving excellence in government over the past 25 years" — a group announced by the Council for Excellence in Government on the occasion of its 25th anniversary in December 2008. The bipartisan group of "greats" included another Hoosier, Sen. Richard G. Lugar, as well former Vice President Al Gore, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, former Secretaries of State James A. Baker III and Colin L. Powell, former Gov. Thomas H. Kean, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and former Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell.
Hamilton and Baker were co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group, and Hamilton and Kean were vice chairman and chairman, respectively, of the 9/11 Commission.
CEG is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization working to improve government performance and enhance public engagement. (www.excelgov.org/)
- In conjunction with Constitution Day, the Christian Science Monitor on Sept. 18 published a commentary by Center Director Lee Hamilton and retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor titled, "A Democracy Without Civics?" It called for mandatory civic learning standards and restoring education for democracy to a central place in our schools. Hamilton, O'Connor, and former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer are co-chairs of The Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, a coalition of 40 organizations committed to improving the quality and quantity of civic learning in grades K-12. (www.civicmissionofschools.org/)
- The Center expresses its appreciation to the Robert H. McKinney Family Endowment and the Central Indiana Community Foundation for their generous support of our educational mission.
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.