Indiana University Bloomington

Experts surveyed on Congress' performance give the institution a 'C-minus' for 2013

  • Feb. 3, 2014


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- A group of academic experts asked to assess Congress’ performance concludes that it is subpar, a C-minus, and that prospects are not good for it to get better anytime soon.

“The experts deliver a rather pessimistic assessment of Congress’ ability to function as a major policymaking institution in our American representative democracy,” said Indiana University political scientist Edward G. Carmines, who is director of research for the Center on Congress at Indiana University.

“We asked, ‘Overall, how would you assess the legislative record of Congress over this past year?’" said Carmines. “Eighty percent gave Congress either a D or an F.

“We asked them whether there were any signs from the past year that Congress would be working better in the future. Seventy percent expected no change. Of those who expected a change, 12.5 percent thought it would get worse. So if you put these two together, 82.5 percent thought Congress would either not improve, or would actually get worse.”

This is the eighth year that the non-partisan center has conducted its experts’ survey. “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 on Congress Director Lee Hamilton.

The experts’ overall ratings of Congress have never been lofty; the highest mark, C-plus, was reached in 2008 and 2010. The grade for 2013 pulls Congress down to where it was in 2011, another C-minus year.

Data on 2013 were collected online in December and early January, after the first session of the 113th Congress ended; the survey elicited the opinions of a select group of 40 top academic experts on Congress from around the country.

In one of the survey’s open-ended questions, an expert commented, “This Congress ranks as the most dysfunctional ever, ducking or denying major economic and social issues while engaged in hyper-partisan actions and the failure to compromise. The problem is not the government itself, or the failure of the U.S. Constitution, as some are suggesting. It is a clash of ideologies engaged more in propaganda than governance.”

“One of the questions we asked is, ‘How well does Congress rely on facts and data to reach its decisions?”’ said Carmines. “A full 60 percent of the respondents graded Congress either D or F on that. Not one respondent gave an A grade, and only two respondents gave a B. So, that’s a rather dismal assessment.

“A parallel question we asked: ‘How well does Congress rely on opinions of recognized experts to reach its decisions?’ Fifty-four percent graded Congress either a D or F.

“Congress is increasingly seen as a venue for the expression of competing ideological viewpoints,” said Carmines. “The experts think that many members of Congress are so driven by ideology and special interests that there is no room for experts or data or evidence to influence decisions.

“If you’re looking to Congress to confront and deal with major social and economic problems, and to compromise in a way that leads to action on them, then Congress is a great disappointment,” said Carmines.

On a range of other performance measures, Congress’ grades slumped well below average. On “keeping the role of special interests within proper bounds,” “generally fulfilling its national policymaking responsibilities” and “considering the long-term implications of policy issues, not just short-term,” Congress got Ds. Grades of D-plus were given to Congress on “exercising its proper role in determining the federal budget,” “focusing on the key issues facing the country” and “representing the interests of the American people.”

For the second time, the experts’ survey included questions about civility in Congress. Fifty-eight percent of the respondents described incivility in Congress as “a major problem” in 2013; that’s up significantly from 2012, when 46 percent of the experts saw incivility as a major problem.

“We asked them whether the incivility in Congress would improve, stay about the same or get worse in the next few years,” Carmines said. “Ninety-five percent said it would either stay the same, or get worse.

“Then we asked about polarization in Congress. A full 80 percent thought that congressional polarization has increased over the past several years. And looking ahead to the next few years, 95 percent felt that Congress would remain as polarized as today, or become even more polarized.”

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 (F). 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. And on ‘allowing multiple points of view on an issue to be heard,’ the House got a D-plus, the Senate a B-minus.”

There were a couple of bright spots for Congress as a whole. The experts gave members two solid B grades -- for being accessible to their constituents and for making their workings and activities open to the public.

As in the past, the 2013 survey included a set of questions asking the experts to assess the public’s knowledge of and interaction with Congress. In the eight-year history of the survey, the public has never received high marks, and the same was the case for 2013.

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

The experts were no kinder to the media. On the survey question, “How well does the media coverage of Congress contribute to the public’s understanding of Congress?” the experts graded journalists a D-plus.

“To the degree that Congress is covered by the media, it’s because of the ideological clashes that take place on the floor and, increasingly, in committee hearings,” said Carmines. “Covering the actual substantive work of Congress is not easy; it’s very technical, it’s very detailed, it’s very nuanced. It doesn’t make for good television.”

Survey questions and results are available online.

About the Center on Congress

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.

The Center on Congress is supported in part by the Office of the Vice Provost for Research at IU Bloomington.

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