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

Bloomington, Ind., April 3, 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, what seems most significant to you in the Center’s recent survey data?

A. There are three things that stand out.  The first two are really connected to each other. 

One, the public continues to see Congress as needing to play a major policymaking role in government. They want Congress to be an effective institution. The public understands that to do that, Congress needs to consider issues thoroughly and carefully, and people would rather Congress do that than to act quickly and superficially. They realize that there are wide differences of opinion in the country, and that Congress somehow has to coordinate them and come to some decision.

Two, the public realizes that Congress has a major impact on their daily lives; they don’t think it’s an irrelevant institution. They realize something that many members of Congress don’t seem to realize: in order to get anything done — because of these wide differences of opinion — there has to be compromise. The public would rather see Congress compromise than to stick to principles and not get anything done. 

All this suggests to me that the citizenry understands that Congress does have a real challenge dealing with a diversity of opinion in trying to make policy. But the public would like to see them do it, and people realize that to get that done, members of Congress have to compromise in order to be effective in national policymaking.

Q. OK, understood. However, I sense you’re leading up to a “But.”

A. I am. BUT citizens don’t think Congress is an effective institution. They think Congress, for example, likes to bicker and score political points rather than get things done. That Congress doesn’t pay attention to ordinary people like themselves. That it’s too dominated by the self-interest of members, and special interests, rather than by the views of constituents. And that even their own representatives don’t understand what average citizens are concerned about. 

So we have a real mismatch, it seems to me: People realize Congress is important, they think it affects their ordinary, daily lives, but because the members are too self-interested, too dominated by special interests, too interested in playing politics, people don’t think it’s up to the task of actually getting things done.

Q. The Center broke some new ground in this survey. Tell us about that.

A. We asked about incivility. These are new questions; we haven’t asked these before. And the results are interesting. People recognize that incivility in Congress is a major problem; they think it’s gotten worse rather than better over the last few years, and they think, in fact, it will even be worse in the future.

When you ask what the incivility is due to, people identify lots of different sources: party leaders, the media, the nature of political campaigns, even the members of Congress themselves.

They do not, however, put much emphasis on society in general, or blame the voters themselves. They put more emphasis on the other things I mentioned.

But they do think that voters can help reduce incivility in Congress. In fact, they say they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who is not civil in their dealings with their colleagues. But they don’t attribute much of the source of the problem to society, or to the general public itself. 

The findings discussed are based on a nationwide survey of 1000 people completed in November and December 2011 by the internet polling firm YouGov Polimetrix.

Survey 2011 Detail:

Questions and Responses