The Public’s Opinions on Congress: Q & A with Center Research Director Carmines

Bloomington, Ind., March 14, 2011  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 if Americans feel Congress is relevant to their lives and is living up to the framers’ expectations that it should be the responsive “people’s branch” of the federal government.

Overseeing this survey work is the Center’s Director of Research, Edward G. Carmines, the Warner O. Chapman Professor and Rudy Professor of political science at Indiana University in Bloomington. Below, Carmines discusses the findings of the Center’s most recent public opinion survey on Congress.

Q. Tell us, Dr. Carmines, how do the numbers look?

A. They are pretty bleak. On all questions where the public grades Congress, it is rated an underperforming institution: “dealing with key issues facing the country” — a D; “keeping excessive partisanship in check” — D-minus; “conducting its business in a careful, deliberate way” — D; “holding its members to high standards of ethical conduct” — D; “controlling the influence of special interest groups” — D-minus.

Asked “Do members of Congress listen and care about what people like you think?” two-thirds say no, not most of the time. 

On the question, “What do you think is the main thing that influences what members of Congress do in office?” 43 percent say it is special interests, and another 41 percent say it is personal self-interest.

On the broadest-gauge question — “overall, do you approve or disapprove of the way Congress is handling its job?” — 84 percent disapprove.

Basically, those surveyed believe Congress just doesn’t work for the public good.

Q. Why is sentiment toward Congress so negative?

A. There are many reasons, of course. Our survey asked, “Have you contacted your current member of Congress for any reason?” 61 percent said they had. But of those, only 45 percent said they were “satisfied with the result of that contact.” So there’s dissatisfaction at a very personal level. Also, it’s plain how much Congress’s image is damaged by the perception that it is influenced by special interests. Seventy-one percent of people said when members of Congress vote, they have special interests in mind “most of the time” or “just about always.”

Another view widely held in the public is that Congress is an excessively contentious place. When asked, “Do you believe that the delays in Congress are due to serious differences on the issues, or that members just like to bicker and score political points?” 66 percent said Congress likes to bicker.

Q. One cause for discord in Congress is that America is a big country, with more than 300 million people and a great diversity of opinions. Do people understand that?

A. They seem to. Our survey asked, “Would you say that most Americans typically agree on what Congress should do, or are there usually wide differences of opinion?” Eighty-five percent said there are usually wide differences of opinion.

The public, though, does not speak with as much clarity on how these differences should be dealt with by members of Congress. When we asked, “Should members of Congress stand up for their principles no matter what, or compromise with their opponents in order to get something done?” a majority, 55 percent, favored standing on principles. But that left a fairly sizable 45 percent who preferred compromise.

Q. Do the survey data include anything positive about Congress?

A. Despite their many negative attitudes about Congress, people do see it as an important institution in our system of government. We asked, “How much of an impact does the work of Congress have on your life?” A majority, 52 percent, said “a great deal,” and another 36 percent said “some.”

And there is a widespread belief that Congress has a legitimate claim to share power with the president. We asked who should take the lead, Congress or the president, in setting the national agenda, determining the federal budget, and deciding to go to war. On all three, very solid majorities said both the president and Congress should play a role.

Also, the survey showed that the public regards Congress as an accessible institution. Asked to respond to the statement, “It’s easy for me to find out what’s happening in Congress,” 56 percent either strongly or somewhat agreed. To the statement, “It’s easy for me to express my views to my U.S. Representative and Senators,” 58 percent either strongly or somewhat agreed.

Q. What does the survey tell us about how Americans prefer to receive information from their members of Congress?

A. A blend of the old and the new on this. Topping the list is the traditional public meeting held by the member on Congress in the constituency — 65 percent of people surveyed said those are “very important.” But the other two means of member communication rated very important by a majority were electronic — online questions (55 percent) and websites (51 percent). Close behind were e-mail updates (49 percent). 

An interesting sign of the times is that only 32 percent rated postal mailings as a very important communications vehicle. That was below online town meetings (37 percent). The role of social media in member-constituent communication is just emerging — 20 percent rated social media as very important. But 68 percent regarded social media as somewhat important, a hefty number that suggests much potential for growth in this area.

The findings discussed are based on a nationwide survey of 1000 people completed in October and November 2010 by the internet polling firm YouGov Polimetrix.


Survey 2010 Detail:

Questions and Responses