HamiltonBLOOMINGTON, Ind. - A newly released public opinion survey shows that neither Congress nor the citizenry is doing its job in getting the legislative process to work effectively.

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Lee H. Hamilton: Congress, citizens share responsibility for failings in the legislative process

Published 11:16am Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The survey, conducted for the Center on Congress, found 77 percent disapproving of the way Congress is handling its job.

And when asked, “Do you believe that the delays in Congress are due to serious differences on the issues, or that members just like to bicker and score political points?” 65 percent attributed delays to bickering.

But according to the survey, citizens also bear some responsibility for shortcomings in the functioning of Congress.

Respondents gave citizens a D on “their understanding of what Congress does and how it works,” a C-minus on “contacting members of Congress on issues that concern them” and a C on “following what is going on in Congress.”

Only 25 percent of those surveyed said they had attended a public meeting in the past two years where one of their members of Congress was present.

“Interestingly, the public makes harsh judgments not only about how Congress functions, but also about the public’s lack of effort in relating to Congress,” said Edward G. Carmines, director of research for the Center on Congress.

“This suggests that the public takes some responsibility for their dismal assessment of the institution.”

Overwhelming majorities of those surveyed see America as a nation with a wide diversity of opinions and believe the legislative process should move at a pace that enables multiple viewpoints to be considered.

When asked, “Would you say that most Americans typically agree on what Congress should do, or are there usually wide differences of opinion?” 84 percent said there are wide differences of opinion.

And when asked, “Is it better for Congress to pass legislation quickly and efficiently, or take the time to consider issues thoroughly and carefully?” 84 percent of respondents preferred the thorough and careful approach.

But the public’s awareness that Congress faces a difficult challenge making policy for a diverse nation does not translate into clear guidance on how disagreements should be resolved in Washington.

When asked if members should “stand up for their principles no matter what,” or “compromise with their opponents in order to get something done,” a solid 55 percent advised the unyielding course.

Only 45 percent said members should be willing to compromise.

Whichever path members decide to choose in the months ahead, one thing is clear: It would be hard for the public’s regard for Congress to sink much lower.

Eighty percent of those surveyed said “the main thing that influences what members of Congress do in office” is either “personal self-interest” or “special interests.”

Asked to assess Congress in several areas, respondents consistently gave the legislature a grade of D – on “controlling the influence of special interest groups”; on “keeping excessive partisanship in check”; on “holding its members to high standards of ethical conduct”; on “conducting its business in a careful, deliberate way”; on “dealing with key issues facing the country”; and on “engaging in productive discussion and allowing all points of view to be heard.”

These negative feelings carried over into questions about the degree to which Congress should be calling the shots in our system of government.

When asked, “Over the last decade, has the power of the Congress been about right, too much, or too little?” 56 percent responded “too much.”

Although the Constitution gives Congress the power of the purse and the authority to declare war, only 22 percent said Congress “should take the lead in determining the federal budget,” and only 15 percent said Congress “should take the lead in deciding to go to war.”

The findings are based on a nationwide survey of 1,000 people completed in October and November 2009 by the internet polling firm YouGov Polimetrix.

About the center

The Center on Congress is a non-partisan, educational institution established in 1999 to help improve the public’s understanding of Congress and to encourage civic engagement.
The Center developed out of Lee Hamilton’s recognition during his 34 years in the U.S. House of Representatives that the public should be more familiar with Congress’ strengths and weaknesses, its role in our system of government and its impact on the lives of ordinary people every day.

The center seeks to inspire young people and adults to take an active part in revitalizing representative government in America.

To that end, the center offers an extensive array of civic education resources and activities, including: print publications; Web-based, interactive modules and other online learning tools in English and Spanish; commentaries for newspapers, radio stations, podcasts and a Web log; video and television in the classroom resources; survey research; teacher awards; and seminars, conferences and a lecture series.

For more information about the center, go to www.centeroncongress.org.

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