Recent surveys indicate the public is thoroughly disgusted with Congress as an institution, with several polls reporting that twenty five percent or fewer express a favorable opinion of our national legislature. But an unpopular Congress is not news. What is news is the very high degree of unpopularity this Congress has attained. How did Congress recently go from being unpopular as an institution to extremely unpopular? To answer this, first consider the many reasons Congress is normally unpopular.
Political scientists John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse in their book "Congress as Public Enemy" (Cambridge University Press, 1995) explain well the enduring unpopularity of Congress. Drawing on surveys of the American public, they find that "In truth, the American people are quite committed to the rules of the democratic game; the problem is that they are not often committed to the game itself" (p. 158). That is, the public likes democratic rules but hates the politics these rules produce.
"People do not wish to see uncertainty, conflicting options, long debate, competing interests, confusion, bargaining and compromised, imperfect solutions. They want government to do its job quietly and efficiently, sans conflict and sans fuss. In short, they often seek a patently unrealistic form of democracy" (p. 147). Unrealistic if one expects such behavior from Congress, certainly.
But Congress itself is not wholly to blame for its unpopularity. "Various features of the modern world worsen the situation for governing institutions. Technology and the media's eagerness to report any and all events make it possible for citizens to view democratic processes with all blemishes revealed. In addition, modernity adds professionalized bells and special-interest whistles to standard democratic procedures" (p. 158). In an era of cable news histrionics and billions spent by interest groups, the publicly distasteful aspects of congressional politics often are on bold display.
Add to this the time-tested pattern of candidates for office avoiding a realistic discussion of their jobs with voters: "Citizens' big failure is that they lack an appreciation for the ugliness of democracy. And no wonder. Politicians are not anxious to tell them. Who runs for office by emphasizing his ability to bargain and compromise? Who runs by saying the problems are really difficult and that true solutions are probably nonexistent? Who runs by saying she is going to emphasize debate and deliberation? Who runs by emphasizing the extent to which the public is divided on key issues?" (p. 157).
So the situation is usually bad for Congress. Recent events, however, have made it even worse. During passage of the health care bill, the public for weeks had "uncertainty, conflicting options, long debate, competing interests, confusion, bargaining and compromised, imperfect solutions" rubbed in their noses. They didn't like it. So it's no surprise why Congress has reached record levels of unpopularity. That also helps to explain the unpopularity of the new health care law.
The big losers in this situation are Democrats, who have seen their party's popularity plummet in the polls and their prospects for the 2010 election become increasingly perilous. Much blame must go to the White House. The Obama administration, in ceding policy leadership to Congress for its major agenda items, started a process that created much public distaste about the end products. By repeatedly ceding the initiative to Congress--first on the stimulus, then on cap-and-trade climate legislation, and finally on health care--the Obama White House helped engender political peril for the Democratic Party.
The lesson in this--for any governing party--is to make Congress as little seen and heard in the policymaking process as possible. Public views of Congress make presidential leadership in policymaking a political necessity nowadays. Obama, take note.
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Steven E. Schier is the Dorothy H. and Edward C. Congdon Professor of Political Science at Carleton College. His columns have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Chicago Tribune, Washington Monthly, Brookings Review and other publications. Visit his Web site here .