Do members of Congress care what the people think of them? With Congress’ job approval running at historic lows, you might conclude they don’t care because they don’t seem to be doing anything about it.
If you ask members directly whether they are concerned about public opinion polls showing them mired in a swamp of low esteem, you will likely get the curt response: “I don’t need public opinion polls to tell me what my people think. I am back in my district every weekend listening to them.” Pressed further, they might tell you the people are indeed angry with Congress, but very supportive of their own member’s tough stands on the issues.
This ambivalence is reflected in those polls that differentiate between job approval of Congress and approval of the respondents’ own representatives. A March poll commissioned by the Bipartisan Policy Center in conjunction with USA Today showed Congress’ job approval rating at just 19 percent, while people gave their own representatives a 52 percent approval rating.
The gap between institutional and individual approval has remained relatively constant over time, though both ratings are down roughly 10 percent from historical averages. The disparity between Congress’ approval and that of one’s own representative even has a name, “Fenno’s Paradox,” after political scientist Richard Fenno. He identified the anomaly in a 1972 lecture titled, “If, as Ralph Nader Says, Congress Is ‘the Broken Branch,’ How Come We Love Our Congressmen So Much?”
The reasons for the difference are not difficult to discern. Voters tend to know more about their representative than about Congress itself, and their views of the former are based on what they feel their member has done for the district and individual constituents. The typical constituent’s view is, “Our member is a smart, hard-working and caring person. It’s the rest of them who are a bunch of lazy bums.” That helps explain why incumbent re-election rates continue to exceed 90 percent even when Congress is only scoring 20 percent favorability ratings.
People have a negative view of Congress because they think it accomplishes little and is intent on waging noisy, partisan battles that usually end in stalemate. Pummeling Congress has been a popular national sport since the beginning of the republic, with everyone playing offense: the media, the public and even members themselves. Those negative attacks tend to feed on each other and grow.
That is not to say criticism of Congress is not usually justified. However, even when Congress manages to accomplish some the important things, they tend to be incremental and barely noticed, leaving the institution with precious little credit, recognition or respect.
So why hasn’t Congress done more to dispel this stereotype of a do-nothing, gridlocked body? One of the reasons previously alluded is that members think they are acting and voting in accord with what their constituents want. Never mind that voters want two different things simultaneously. According to the BPC/USA Today poll cited above, 80 percent of respondents feel their representatives should vote for what the people they represent want as opposed to 17 percent who feel members should vote according to their own conscience and experience.
However, only 29 percent think members should stick to their principles and do what they and their constituents think is right, even if it means not passing legislation that addresses serious problems. Sixty-seven percent think members should work across party lines and engage in give and take to come up with solutions to the nation’s problems, even if it means giving in on some of their principles.
While those responses may seem contradictory, they actually reflect a common conviction by the people of why they send their representatives to Washington in the first place: They fully expect them to work things out among themselves through consensus building and compromise when it is in the best interest of the nation. It is all about governing.
As Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich., recently reminded his colleagues upon announcing his retirement, Congress means “a coming together.” The fact that members instead seem to be flailing apart bespeaks a basic misunderstanding of their constitutional role. Maybe in addition to opening each day’s session with a prayer and the pledge, members should be forced to watch that classic kids’ cartoon, “School House Rock,” on how a bill becomes a law.
This will be my last column with Roll Call due to new directions at the publication. I simply want to thank Roll Call for carrying “Procedural Politics” since 2006, and for all its editorial support along the way. I am especially grateful to the many faithful readers of the column for their encouraging comments and suggestions over the years. I expect to continue publishing elsewhere in a similar vein, at least until we get Congress right. Until next time …
Don Wolfensberger is a resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.