Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
July 26, 2014

Hate Congress? Blame the (Sharply Divided) Voters

An increasingly popular talking point for Democrats is that Republicans are responsible for the bickering, dysfunction and looming budget crises on Capitol Hill.

On its GrandObstructionParty.com Web page, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee declares: “This Republican Congress is broken — too focused on obstruction and scoring points against President Obama.”

Some experts sound a similar refrain, heaping blame on Congress and particularly on the GOP for budget showdowns, stalled legislation and a public approval rating stuck in the teens.

In a progress report following on their 2012 book, “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,” in which they tar Republicans as “ideologically extreme” and “scornful of compromise,” congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein write that “the rampant tribalism and deep dysfunction that we wrote about a year ago have not abated after the 2012 election. If anything, they have grown.”

But much of what ails Washington goes beyond intransigent lawmakers and originates with voters themselves. As CQ Weekly reports this week, voters are sharply divided about the issues they care about most deeply. Even if this Congress managed to magically sail through a budget agreement, a debt limit deal, an immigration overhaul and more, splits within the electorate guarantee that plenty of voters would remain unhappy. As CQ Weekly notes:

“On the issue most important to the public — the state of the economy and the government’s role — Republican and Democratic voters fundamentally disagree on a solution. As on Capitol Hill, the great divide is between those who argue for more investment in infrastructure and jobs, and others who say economic growth will come only if they can shrink government and roll back taxes.” Read the whole story here. (Subscription required.)

“The essential problem of our times is that the issues that people regard as the most important are also the most divisive, the issues that divide the political parties,” said William Galston, a Brookings Institution senior fellow and a co-founder of the solutions-oriented group No Labels.

Members of Congress tend to brush off voters’ low public opinion of them, focused only on their own constituents. Still, lawmakers are remarkably in tune with what’s eating voters.

CQ Roll Call staff writers Daniel Newhauser and Humberto Sanchez, who cover the House and the Senate respectively, asked more than a dozen lawmakers what Congress could do to elevate public opinion. Lawmakers in both parties flagged what pollsters say is far and away voters’ top concern — jobs and the economy — and acknowledged that voters want to see them work more cooperatively.

Congress needs to “avert a shutdown of the government, come to some agreement on sequestration so we can eliminate the devastating effects of it,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. “There are a whole lot of things we can do to come to agreements so you can go home and tell people what you’ve accomplished, rather than what you’ve blocked.”

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., concurred: “What we need to do is give predictability to our economy, which means a budget agreement. That, to me, is the number one way to restore confidence of the American people in Congress — for us to reach a budget agreement, eliminate sequestration and allow our economy to reach its full potential.”

Others, though, stress the deep national divisions that are driving congressional conflict.

“I think it’s more important to prevent bad legislation from passing than it is to add more to the books at this present time,” said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., adding that many in the business community would agree that excessive regulations are hindering economic growth.

As Washington veers toward another government shutdown or debt limit crisis, it’s easy to see why Democrats would try to turn anti-Congress sentiment to their advantage. Though Democrats have a 52 percent disapproval rating in the latest Public Policy Polling survey, Republicans are even more unpopular, with 58 percent disapproving. The difference is that Republicans are unpopular, not just with Democrats but with many GOP voters.

Still, the anti-GOP blame-game may or may not resonate with many voters outside the Democratic Party. After all, voters want Congress to work in the public interest, but “people don’t agree on what the public interest is,” says Gary Jacobson, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego.

“It’s a messy process; it’s not working very well right now; but it’s not a situation that is understood very well by the public,” Jacobson said. “In fact, they’re dealing with fundamental disagreements on the direction of public policy that are very hard to resolve.”

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