Public sees no signs of compromise on Capitol Hill, slaps Congress with low grades in survey

  • March 31, 2016


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The good news for Congress is that Americans understand that legislators in Washington have a tough job trying to make laws for a diverse and polarized nation. The bad news for Congress: Americans still expect the national legislature to tackle that challenge, and most in the public believe Congress is failing to do the hard work necessary to bridge differences and achieve results.

Those are key findings of the latest survey of public attitudes about Congress conducted by the Indiana University Center on Representative Government. The annual survey is overseen by Edward G. Carmines, Distinguished Professor, Warner O. Chapman Professor and Rudy Professor of Political Science in the College of Arts and Sciences.

"When we asked, 'How would you compare the polarization of members of Congress to the polarization among the American public,' 63 percent responded that they see the public as either just about as polarized as Congress, or even more polarized," Carmines said. "And when we 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.'"

But while it's evident that Congress faces a high degree of difficulty, Americans still come down hard on the legislators for failing to find a way forward. To the question "Overall, do you approve or disapprove of the way Congress is handling its job," 81 percent disapprove. When asked, "Who do you think is more responsible for the policymaking gridlock in Washington," almost two times as many people say Congress is the primary culprit than blame solely President Barack Obama.

"Americans recognize there are a lot of diverse opinions in the country, and that those opinions are often reflected in Congress," Carmines said. "But they do expect Congress to make some progress. Its policymaking capacity is just not very evident. When Congress seems to be immobilized, playing politics so much of the time, unable to address the country's problems, there's a diffuse disappointment and even anger that attends to the institution. Congress doesn't seem to be operating in a way that reflects the interests of the American people."

What to do? In a word, the survey says, compromise. "Should members of Congress stand up for their principles no matter what, or compromise with their opponents in order to get something done?" the survey asked. Fifty-five percent of the public said, "Compromise to get something done."

Those polled acknowledge that on certain issues, finding common ground to make law is especially difficult. On abortion and gun control, for instance, less than half of the public expected members of Congress to compromise. But by contrast, solid majorities said that compromise should be possible on national security (55 percent), immigration (57 percent), health care (59 percent) and taxes (63 percent).

"Americans recognize that trying to get agreement in Congress is not easy. It's very difficult," Carmines said. "There are lots of different solutions, lots of different priorities. But they expect Congress to at least work at it, and not to simply exacerbate differences on major problems facing the country."

Longtime U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton, now senior advisor to the IU Center on Representative Government, frames the challenge this way: "Can Congress develop a reputation as an institution that seeks out ways to find agreement -- within each chamber, between the two chambers and with the president?"

If Congress fails to answer that call, the consequence is likely to be continued bottom-scraping ratings from the public.

More than three-fourths of those surveyed said that either special interests or personal self-interest are the main influences on members of Congress. Asked if "information from my members of Congress is trustworthy," 54 percent either somewhat disagreed or strongly disagreed. To the question "Do members of Congress listen and care about what people like you think," 62 percent said "no, not most of the time."

Asked to grade Congress on a scale of A to F, the public slapped Congress with low marks on a series of performance measures: Grades of D on "keeping excessive partisanship in check" and 'controlling the influence of special interest groups"; D-plus grades on "dealing with key issues facing the country" and 'holding its members to high standards of ethical conduct" and "conducting its business in a careful, deliberate way."

Overall, Carmines said, "this is a pretty dim view of Congress. There is not a lot of confidence in our most representative institution."

One tantalizing finding of the survey is that if members of Congress could begin to show serious intent to work across party lines, the public would understand if longstanding disputes do not resolve in a hurry. Asked, "Is it better for Congress to pass legislation quickly and efficiently, or take the time to consider issues thoroughly and carefully," 83 percent chose the "thorough and careful" path over speed and efficiency.

But for now, the public sees little sign of serious intent in Congress to work for policy solutions. Sixty-five percent of those surveyed believe that delays in Congress are caused not by "serious differences on issues" but because "members just like to bicker and score political points."

Despite Congress' reputation as bickering and ineffective, it is noteworthy that the institution has not slid into irrelevance in the minds of Americans. When asked, "How much of an impact does the work of Congress have on your life," 46 percent of those surveyed still said "some," and 31 percent said "a great deal." And solid majorities want to see Congress and the president work as equal partners on "deciding to go to war" (58 percent), "setting the national agenda" (57 percent) and "determining the federal budget" (54 percent).

The center's survey also included questions to gauge the public's view of its own performance in the civic arena. The grades for the citizenry are just about as bad as those for Congress: D-plus on "following what is going on in Congress," "contacting members of Congress on issues" and "being able to get to the core facts on issues before Congress," and a C-minus on "voting in congressional elections."

Examining the relationship between citizens and Congress -- how people learn about, interact with and evaluate the institution and its members -- is an important focus of the Center on Representative Government.

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 2015 findings are based on a nationwide survey of 1000 people conducted in November and December by the Internet polling firm YouGov Polimetrix.

Survey questions and results are available online.