Pollsters almost always have their finger on the pulse of public opinion about the president. But they only tune in sporadically to how Americans think Congress is doing — something that Indiana University’s Center on Congress would like to change.
The institution recently released its first annual survey on Congress, aiming to fill what they believe is a chasm in understanding about how citizens evaluate the legislative branch and upon what information those decisions are based.
“For American democracy to work, citizens must have a close and productive relationship with their Representatives in Congress,” said former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), the center’s director. “There’s a lot of polling on how people feel about the president, but our center’s survey focuses attention on the vital link between citizens and those whom they elect to Congress.”
Americans’ views of how Congress is performing its job are polled significantly less often than the public’s perception of the president, said Karlyn Bowman, a resident fellow specializing in public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute (and a regular Roll Call columnist.)
The Gallup Organization poses Congressional approval/disapproval questions more often than any other polling firm, Bowman said. Yet in 2004, the firm asked whether respondents approved or disapproved of the way Congress was doing its job on 12 occasions, compared to 35 surveys that included approve/disapprove questions about the presidency.
That pattern is historically consistent and continued for the first half of this year, Bowman said. From January to June, Gallup conducted six approve/disapprove questions about Congress and 18 about how well President Bush is performing. (As a benchmark, Bowman offered that during the same period Gallup asked respondents nine times about how satisfied they were with the way things were going in the country generally.)
“Presidential approval questions are asked much more often — there’s just no comparison,” Bowman said.
Beyond simply registering approval ratings, the Center on Congress hopes to glean a broader understanding of how Americans interact with the legislative branch. This year’s survey — conducted via telephone interviews of more than 1,400 people, from November 2004 to January 2005 — focused on citizens’ understanding of civic duty, the level of civic engagement, where people get their information on Congress and how the institution should handle various issues.
At least in the area of approval/disapproval, the results were not favorable to this Congress, with 57 percent of Americans surveyed saying they disapproved of the way Congress does its job. Younger and better-educated people were more positive in their overall assessment. Just over a majority of Americans reported seeing Congress’ role as relevant to their lives.
The survey also revealed a distinct “generation gap” in how the public perceives Congress. Among those 35 and older, only 38 percent said they approved of Congress’ job performance, while the approval rating was 54 percent among the 18-to-34 set.
The public prefers that the president and Congress share equal responsibility for handling national issues, such as the war in Iraq, terrorism, the economy and education, the center found.
The survey also found that 49 percent of those questioned believe that lawmakers representing them have their constituents’ interest in mind “most of the time” or “just about always” when voting on public policy, while 64 percent responded that their Representatives have special interests in mind when casting their votes on legislation.
According to the survey, 67 percent of Republicans approve of Congress’ job performance, while only 26 percent of Democrats approve.
The center found that more Americans get their news about Congress from television than from any other source, although no single medium is used by the majority of Americans as their primary source. Forty-seven percent of respondents turn to TV for their Congressional news, 23 percent use newspapers as their main source, while 11 percent rely on the Internet and 8 percent depend mostly on radio.
“This initial survey of the public’s knowledge of and attitudes toward Congress raises a number of questions we will study more closely in the center’s subsequent annual surveys,” Hamilton said in a statement. “In our representative democracy, Congress must reflect the views and interests of the American people as it frames the laws of the land, so it really does matter what people think about Congress.”
The numbers documenting the respondents’ own participation in civic affairs were telling. An overwhelming majority of Americans believe it is their duty to participate in civic affairs, yet the vast majority did not make contact with their Representatives in Congress, even though more than 90 percent of those surveyed believed that they should do so. Only one in five respondents had actually contacted their House Member or one of their Senators.
Similarly, more than 80 percent of those surveyed said they voted in the last election, which the Center on Congress believes is a reflection of either faulty memories or an embarrassment about admitting to not voting. In reality, only about half the public is even registered to vote, and of those, only half voted in 2004.