Public to Congress: Bend, Don't Break

A Capitol Hill police officer stands guard outside during a visit by President Barack Obama to the House Democratic Caucus retreat at the U.S. Capitol on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2010, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)   (National Journal)

Most Americans see conflict between the parties as the central reason Washington has not produced a more productive response to the persistent economic slowdown, but remain pessimistic that the two sides will reach effective agreements more often after the November election, according to the latest United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll.

When it comes to compromise in Congress, it appears that absence has made Americans' hearts grow fonder: Compared with 2010, the survey found a notable uptick in the share of Americans who said they prefer political leaders who "make compromises with people they disagree with" over those who "stick to their positions without compromising."

But the survey found that the public remains dubious that Congress will heed that advice: Only 27 percent of those polled said they believed that after the 2012 election "the two parties will come together more than they have in recent years to try to solve the most important problems facing the nation." A resounding 63 percent instead predicted that "the two parties will mostly disagree and reach stalemate on the most important problems facing the nation, as they often have in recent years."

The United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll, conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, surveyed 1,001 adults by landline and cell phone on July 19-22. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.

The survey found that in a country deeply divided on almost all political questions, Americans across racial, class, and partisan lines overwhelmingly agree that this Congress has argued more, and accomplished less, than usual.

In response to a long-term trend question, fully 80 percent of those polled said that this year Republicans and Democrats have "been bickering and opposing one another more than usual." Since that question has been asked in Congressional Connection and Pew Research Center surveys going back to 1998, only at the height of last summer's debt-ceiling standoff has a higher percentage said that Congress was bickering more than usual. Just 8 percent of those polled in the new survey said that Congress this year has been "working together more to solve problems." Only once before (in December 2011) has Congress scored lower on that measure.

Likewise, on another long-term trend question, just 8 percent said that "this Congress has accomplished more" than usual; 40 percent said that it has accomplished about the same as usual; and 47 percent said it has accomplished less. Again, in results dating back to 1998, only in December 2011 has a higher percentage said that Congress had accomplished less than usual.

The belief that this Congress has bickered more than usual is shared by roughly four-fifths of whites and nonwhites; Republicans, Democrats and independents; whites with and without college educations; and adults at all income levels. The convergence wasn't quite so profound on Congress's performance, but still just less than half of Democrats and independents, and just more than half of Republicans, agreed that its performance has lagged.

Most Americans continue to see the partisan stalemate as a key contributor to the ongoing economic distress, according to the poll. Another question noted that "over the past few years, Washington leaders have tried to address the problem of high unemployment, without much success" and asked respondents why that is so. About one-sixth responded that Washington hadn't made a greater dent on the problem mostly because "neither Democrats nor Republicans in Washington have come up with any good ideas to reduce unemployment so far." Just under one-fourth of respondents said the problem is that "there is not much Washington leaders can do to reduce unemployment through policy or legislation." A 52 percent majority agreed that "there have been good ideas, but fighting between Democrats and Republicans has blocked needed government action."

That sentiment also drew broad agreement, with one big exception. While 65 percent of Democrats mostly blamed partisan conflict for the lack of effective action, 49 percent of independents and just 45 percent of Republicans agreed; nearly 30 percent of Republicans said that Washington simply can't do much to improve the employment situation.

These divisions blurred again on the question about expectations of Congress's behavior after the election. More than three-fifths of both nonwhites and whites predicted the deadlock between the parties would continue into 2013. So did more than two-thirds of independents and Democrats and nearly three-fifths of Republicans.

For many Americans, that's clearly an ominous prospect. A narrow 52 percent majority of those surveyed said they most admire political leaders who compromise "with people they disagree with." That's a marked increase from Congressional Connection polls in both September and November 2010, when only 42 percent of those surveyed said they most admired political leaders who stress compromise.

In each of those 2010 surveys, a plurality (49 percent in September and 45 percent in November) said they most admired leaders who stick to their positions without compromising. But in the new poll, just 38 percent said they most admired leaders who don't compromise.

Rank-and-file Republicans remain somewhat less likely to favor leaders who compromise than do Democrats or independents. But since the September 2010 poll, Republicans have moved more than the other two groups toward prizing compromise. In the new poll, 48 percent of Republicans said they most admired leaders who compromise (compared with 45 percent who prefer those who don't.) That's a sharp shift from September 2010, when just 33 percent of Republicans said they admired leaders who compromise, and 62 percent admired those who did not.

Among Democrats, 62 percent now say they most admire leaders who compromise (up more modestly from 54 percent in 2010). Among independents, 51 percent now favor leaders who compromise (up from 40 percent in 2010).