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December 20, 2014

Does Congress Care About Public Opinion? | Procedural Politics

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.


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  • Connie M. Schoenung, CP

    Unemployment Extension 2014 – The House of Representatives convene this afternoon. Do you know I have searched every news media channel, including Roll Call; and unless I missed something, no one is covering the fact that HR 3979 is still sitting on someone’s desk without a possibility of even being brought to vote?

    • Layla

      As long as legalization is around the corner, don’t hold your breath. American citizens should expect nothing from Congress, either side. They care more about the illegals than they do you.

  • Jack Everett

    Politicians do not care any longer. Corporations buy elections as proven by the media that keeps posting these huge donations like they were votes. The followers of both parties have been brainwashed and will die for their favorite fascist no matter how corrupt or damaging they prove to be.

  • gildersleeve

    If the Republicans pass amnesty, They might as well put the voting booth in Mexico. The Mexicans will vote yes on every give away program the democrats offer. (Which will be many)

    • Nicholas DeLuca

      Hyperbole.

    • pitch1934

      Racist.

  • Layla

    Of course they don’t care! Pelosi called her constituents “astroturf”. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer won’t take appointments unless it is a major donor. Republicans are just as bad. I wonder how many constituents have met with GOP leadership directly recently who weren’t there to hand over a large campaign check?

    The Democrats were going to be voted out for Obamacare. And now GOP leadership has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by jumping on the “legalization” bandwagon with the administration and the US Chamber. Only the GOP could do that so well.

    Here is the plan: Illegals are not given amnesty, at least not right way. Instead they are given “legalization”, placing them in a special category. Employers would be fee to hire them for less money and no benefits, including Obamacare.

    Whom do you think would get the jobs?

    Of course there would be outrage, so within about 6 months Congress would have to pass amnesty, giving them full rights and benefits, including the right to vote. See how this works?

    Thanks to the Tea Party, the American public are on to you now. It’s going to be an interesting election season! If I were you, I’d dust off that resume!

  • pitch1934

    Congress only cares about the high rollers and donors. That goes for both sides.

  • Torr Visi

    Since virtues and moral standards are key pillars upon which liberty rests, attacks upon them undermine the civilized culture they support.

  • YONATAN C

    THE REPUBLICAN SENATE NEEDS TO PASS THE LONG AWAITED UNEMPLOYMENT EXTENSION BILL, FOR THE 2.6 MILLION OF FAMILIES THAT HAVE BEEN WITHOUT BENEFITS SINCE LAST DECEMBER. SINCE LAST DECEMBER, MILLIONS OF FAMILIES HAVE FACED FINANCIAL RUIN, HAVE FACED EVICTION, HOME FORECLOSURES, PERSONAL BANKRUPTCY, AND HOMELESSNESS, WHILE THE REPUBLICANS CONTINUE PLAYING THEIR “PARTY POLITICS” IN THE SENATE. THE TIME HAS COME FOR THE “ELECTED OFFICIALS” TO START REPRESENTING THE AMERICAN PEOPLE, AND NOT THE XL OIL PIPELINE LOBBY INTEREST. THAT IS THE REASON FOR THIS FIVE MONTH DELAY AND BATTLE IN THE SENATE TO PASS THE EXTENSION BILL. THE REPUBLICANS HAVE BEEN HOLDING THE EXTENSION BILL AS “HOSTAGE” UNTIL THEIR “SPECIAL INTEREST GROUP” GETS THEIR OIL PIPLINE APPROVED. THE REPUBLICANS HAVE ACTUALLY ASSISTED WITH MAKING THESE UNFORTUNATE FAMILIES SUFFER, IN ORDER TO GET THEIR OWN BILL PASSED BY THE PRESIDENT. AS A “FORMER” REPUBLICAN, I CAN HONESTLY SAY THAT I WILL NEVER AGAIN VOTE FOR THEIR PARTY

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