The American public is so doubtful about Congress’s ability to get things done that barely one in 10 of those surveyed for the latest edition of the United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll believe that it’s “very likely” it can reduce the federal budget deficit or address immigration policy and the nation’s energy needs.
When it comes to addressing the nation’s still-disappointing job situation, the number who answered that it’s “very likely” went up, but only to 19 percent.
Perhaps it’s not surprising, after a year in which Congress has been marked by eleventh-hour standoffs over everything from raising the debt ceiling to extending the payroll-tax cut, that the public would be so pessimistic about the ability of lawmakers to get much done. The decline of faith in institutions is a mainstay of modern life, but it’s hard to think of another institution that now garners such little confidence.
When respondents were asked, “Have Republicans and Democrats in Washington been working together to solve problems OR have they been bickering and opposing one another more than usual?” the answer was pretty clear. Only 8 percent of respondents said the parties were working together more to solve problems, while 79 percent said that they were bickering more. A mere 4 percent said it was the same as in the past; 10 percent refused to answer.
There have been some windows of optimism over the past few years. In January 2009, as President Obama came into office, 50 percent of those responding to a similar question said they saw more comity between Republicans and Democrats in the nation’s capital. In January 2002, not long after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a majority of Americans also saw Republicans and Democrats as working together more than in the past. The inauguration of the nation’s first African-American president and the days after the most destructive attack on the nation since Pearl Harbor were especially unusual times and, perhaps, it’s not surprising that the public would look more kindly on their leaders in Washington. But even during less tumultuous epochs, the percentage floated in the 20s, 30s, and 40s—not exactly an enthusiastic demonstration of belief in the ability of lawmakers to put aside their differences and actually get things done for the American people, but at least it showed some public confidence. Now the percentage seems stuck in single digits and has remained there for months, suggesting perhaps, a tumultuous general election ahead.
When respondents were asked to look back at this Congress, the public seems equally disdainful. When Americans were asked to compare the current Congress to others and then asked to say whether this one has accomplished more, accomplished less, or accomplished about the same amount—well, one might guess the answer at this point.
Only 8 percent said that this Congress had accomplished more, while 46 percent said less and 40 percent said the same amount. If you go back to as recently as fall 2010, 20 percent of respondents thought Congress had accomplished more.
The United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, which surveyed 1,002 adults on April 12-15. The poll has a margin of error of +/-3.6 percent. It tracks the public’s priorities for Congress and assessment of the body, covering a wide range of policy issues. The poll is conducted most weeks Congress is in session, and the results are published in National Journal Daily and online at NationalJournal.com.
One of the mainstays of the poll is an examination of how different groups of Americans see Congress. When broken down by income, race, party affiliation, and so on, what one finds in these latest results is fascinating. On that “bickering versus working together” question, Republicans and Democrats are equally disheartened, with only 10 percent of Democrats and 8 percent of Republicans surveyed saying that the parties in Washington have been working together more to solve problems. Whites and non-Hispanic blacks were also within a couple of points of each other. Whites over age 65 were the most inclined to see Washington as squabbling: Only 2 percent of them thought there was more cooperation between the parties. There weren’t big differences on the basis of education or income.
None of this makes for a pretty picture for lawmakers heading into an election year, especially when Congress is likely to be unable to agree on a budget, a hike in the debt ceiling, sequestration, or any number of issues between now and November.
This article appears in the April 18, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.