Survey: Citizens slam Congress and public for failing to do their duty

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Survey: Citizens slam Congress and public for failing to do their duty

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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The public takes a very dim view of how Congress performs its duties and also has a negative outlook on citizens’ contributions to the legislative process, according to a newly released opinion survey.

The survey, conducted in late 2013 for the Center on Congress at Indiana University, found 88 percent disapproving of the way Congress is handling its job. In a similar survey conducted for the center a year earlier, the disapproval rating was 91 percent.

“The difference between 2012 and 2013 is really minute,” said Indiana University political scientist Edward G. Carmines, who is director of research for the center. “Overall it is a very consistent, persistent negative evaluation of Congress.”

But, Carmines added, “It’s important to recognize that the public does accept some responsibility for the way Congress operates. When we ask them about their own performance, on ‘following what is going on in Congress,’ the grade is D-plus. On ‘contacting members of Congress on issues,’ another grade of D-plus. On ‘being able to get to the core facts on issues before Congress,’ again a D-plus. On ‘voting in congressional elections,’ a C-minus.

“So the survey shows that not only does Congress have problems, but also in many ways the public has limitations and challenges that it’s not meeting,” Carmines said.

While the public acknowledges that it falls short in the performance of its civic duties, this does not lead to any ambivalence about dishing out low marks to Congress.

Carmines said, “When we asked, ‘How well do you think members of Congress understand the views and interests of people in their state or district?’ 40 percent of those surveyed said ‘not at all.’ We asked if people thought that information from their members of Congress is trustworthy, and 58 percent said it’s untrustworthy. We asked, ‘Do members of Congress listen and care about what people like you think?’ Two-thirds said ‘no, not most of the time.’

“To the question, ‘What do you think is the main thing that influences what members of Congress do in office?’ 79 percent said members are motivated by their own personal self-interest or by special interests, rather than by the interests of their constituents or those of the country as a whole.

“There’s just a major disconnect between what the public expects Congress to do and their perceptions and evaluations of what Congress actually does,” Carmines said. “A majority believe that Congress should be an equal branch of government when it comes to a variety of activities -- in terms of sharing responsibility with the president in setting the national budget, the national agenda, going to war. But they emphasize that Congress does not live up to expectations for what a major national institution in a representative democracy should be.”

One particularly telling piece of data emerged from the question, “How much of an impact does the work of Congress have on your life?” In 2012, 50 percent of those surveyed said Congress had a “great deal” of impact. In 2013, that number plunged to 33 percent.

“That’s probably connected to the dysfunctionality of Congress,” Carmines said. “When the institution over time is persistently unable to deal with major problems facing the country, you begin to recognize that Congress may have less relevance to your own life.”

One consolation for legislators is that the survey shows understanding in the public that Congress faces difficult challenges. When asked, “Would you say that most Americans typically agree on what Congress should do, or are there usually wide differences of opinion?” 83 percent said there are wide differences of opinion.

But that does not lead the public to give a pass to the tone of debate in Congress. Sixty-five percent said that delays in Congress occur because “members just like to bicker and score political points,” not because they have “serious differences on the issues.” Asked about “incivility in Congress,” 63 percent called it a “major problem.”

Sixty percent said that polarization -- the movement of members of the two parties to the ideological extremes -- is a “major problem” for the functioning of Congress. A 59 percent majority said that members of Congress should be willing to “compromise with their opponents in order to get something done,” rather than “stand up for their principles no matter what.”

Examining the relationship between citizens and Congress -- how people learn about, interact with and evaluate the institution and its members -- has been an important focus for the Center on Congress since its founding in 1999.

The center regularly conducts public opinion polls to gauge whether Americans feel Congress is relevant to their lives and is living up to the framers’ expectation that it should be the responsive “people’s branch” of the federal government.

The 2013 findings are based on a nationwide survey of 1,000 people conducted in November and December by the Internet polling firm YouGov Polimetrix.

The survey questions and results are available online.

About the Center on Congress

The Center on Congress is a nonpartisan 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.

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