Congress and public opinion: Five things you may not know
A new report by the Congressional Research Service, the legislature’s nonpartisan think tank, provides deeper explication of the problem and its causes. As indicated by its title, “Understanding Congressional Approval: Public Opinion from 1974 to 2014,” the report offers a four-decade overview of public sentiment. Deeply sourced in political science literature and loaded with data, but the report is nonetheless easy to read, with five key points that are especially striking.
1. The public has been down on Congress for 40 years.
The report, written by Dr. Jessica C. Gerrity (a former colleague of mine), points out that “[c]ongressional approval has been greater than 50 percent only four times in the past 40 years—1985, 1987, 2001 and 2002.” On average, in any given, only about 32 percent of the public approve of the work Congress is doing.
2. Recent public disdain for Congress has been especially intense for the past four years.
Public approval of Congress has dropped below 20 percent seven times in the past 40 years, and four of those were in the past four years. As far as we know, that’s unprecedented.
3. The public rarely adores Congress, but the loathing is becoming personal.
It is the norm for congressional approval to be below 60 percent. In fact, Congress’ Gallup approval rating has exceeded 60 percent for only three months (January 2002 to March 2002) since 1974. (It peaked at 63 percent.)
Throughout much of this period, John Q. Public tended to think well of his own member of Congress, despite his generally low esteem for the institution as a whole. That, the CRS report finds, is changing. Individual members are increasingly un-loved by their constituents.
4. The media is partially to blame. But so is Congress.
The media rarely publish stories describing congressional achievements. Instead, it regularly focuses on lawmakers’ worst behaviors: personal scandals, corruption accusations and trash-talking between the parties. Actual congressional achievements, including the humdrum work of oversight and constituent service, get little ink.
But Congress also is to blame. The public is turned off by partisanship and bickering. And that is exactly what Congress has been serving up by the ladle-full.
The report notes that “the legislative process, as of late, has been characterized by increasingly partisan conflict as polarization in Congress has increased.” Social scientific research, CRS points out, strongly suggests “the more conflict is observed or perceived in Congress, the less the public approves of Congress.”
5. Congress can raise the public’s esteem for it.
Doing more to improve the economy also could bolster public satisfaction. The CRS report points out the public tends to be happiest with the national legislature during good economic times.
Beyond that, Congress should deal with its public relations problem, which is borne partially of a collective action problem. Congress has 535 members and two parties, each trying to aggrandize themselves, frequently at the expense of one another. New members frequently have earned their spots in Congress by running campaigns against it. Discord, then, almost is inevitably associated with Congress in the popular mind.
It is thus almost inevitable that the president, whoever he or she is, will enjoy higher approval ratings. In part, this is because the president has a team who can help him or her sculpt positive, coherent narratives that emphasize achievement and project dignity.
Congress could lift its positives with the public if it more frequently spoke collectively about the things it gets done. This would require far more coordination from congressional leadership, which has sullied the institution through constant mudslinging.
Interestingly, the report’s data also indicate that Congress might help itself by trashing the President less. As the above figure shows, the approval of Congress rises and falls with the public’s esteem for the President. Disagreement between the branches is normal and healthy, but relentlessly bitter rancor makes both branches look contemptible.
Finally, the report suggests that Congress should devote “more time and resources to informing the public about core tenets of the legislative process.” The public needs to be reminded that debate is not bad. Disagreement is a part and parcel to democracy, and arguing can produce smarter policy.
While it goes beyond the text of the CRS report, it also seems plausible that Congress would benefit from making its operations more cognizable to the public. Presently, the institution operates under fantastically baroque procedures that seem inextricably tied to policy-making paralysis. That a single Senator can, for example, kill legislation that was approved by committee, and supported by the House and most Senators, is baffling and infuriating. (CRS, by the way, has a team of experts in legislative process who advise Members themselves on how the legislative process works.)
All that said, it seems inarguable that Congress could improve its standing with the public by seeing to it that its debates more often culminate in tangible take-aways. It is difficult to imagine John Q. Citizen much heralding a legislature that seldom is in session, rarely passes a budget, does not contend with the skyrocketing debt, and generally shirks its duties.