A majority of voters worry that government regulation of business has gone too far and is hurting the economy, but most also remain reluctant to block several of the key rules that congressional Republicans want to reverse, according to the latest United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll.
On many questions relating to Washington’s role, voters expressed the mix of views that political scientists often describe as philosophically conservative and operationally liberal: Though skeptical of regulation in principle, Americans are open to it in practice. The poll also found that these issues carved fissures of opinion along lines of gender, race, education, and age that could complicate their electoral impact.
The poll was conducted shortly after House Republicans voted almost unanimously in September to block Environmental Protection Agency regulations meant to reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants. The House is expected to vote this week to stop other EPA rules affecting cement plants and industrial boilers. Though these measures are not expected to pass the Senate, the House is planning votes this fall to shelve other administration regulations.
The Congressional Connection Poll, conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, surveyed 1,000 adults by landline and cell phone from Sept. 29 to Oct. 2. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.
In the most dramatic finding, 55 percent of adults said that government regulation of business has been a “major factor” in the “current economic slowdown.” That far exceeded the share that considered regulation either a minor factor (29 percent) or not a factor at all (13 percent) in the downturn.
Similarly, 51 percent agreed with the statement that “government regulation of business usually does more harm than good,” while only 43 percent endorsed the sentiment that “government regulation of business is necessary to protect the public interest.” That marked the highest showing for the anti-regulatory position since April 1995, according to surveys by the Pew Research Center, which have tracked the same question.
But specific Obama administration regulatory plans scored better. The poll asked respondents whether Congress should block the EPA rules intended to “limit emissions of mercury, sulfur dioxide, and other pollutants from power plants.” The question noted that proponents believe the rules are necessary “because these pollutants cause health problems like asthma and lung disease” while the “opponents say the regulations will raise the price of electricity and hurt the economy.”
Given those descriptions, 47 percent said Congress should allow the rules to go into effect, while 40 percent said it should block the regulations as the House voted to do.
The results were similar when the poll asked about pending EPA regulations “that would limit emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases that scientists have linked to global climate change.” The question noted that supporters argue that Washington “must limit these emissions because climate change is damaging the environment” while opponents “say the regulations will cost too much and that man-made climate change is an unproven theory.”
Provided those arguments, 52 percent said Congress should allow the rules to take effect, while only 39 percent said it should block them.
The poll also asked about the 2010 Dodd-Frank legislation that imposed tougher regulations on financial institutions. The question noted that “Democrats say the law is necessary to protect consumers and prevent another financial crisis” while “Republicans say it should be repealed because it is making it more difficult for banks to lend money.”
Given those descriptions, 49 percent said Congress should maintain the law, while 42 percent backed repeal.
In a similar vein, by 43 percent to 37 percent, respondents said they trusted President Obama over congressional Republicans in “making decisions about how much to regulate business.”
“With people incredibly concerned about the economy, defending regulations that appear to be a break on the economy is a losing position,” said GOP pollster Whit Ayres. “That doesn’t mean you can’t pick out a regulation here or there that people support…. But the energy is in the broader argument that we are in an economic crisis because of too much government.”
Throughout the survey, regulation was relatively more popular among women, minorities, younger people, college-educated whites, and in the East and West, and less popular among men, older Americans, blue-collar whites, and in the heartland.
Among whites, women with college degrees consistently were the most supportive of regulation, generally followed by college-educated men. By contrast, non-college white women, and especially non-college white men, expressed more opposition.
While a plurality of blue-collar white men would shelve the EPA rules aimed at coal-fired power plants, for instance, white women support them by 2-to-1. Such divergence suggests that debates over balancing regulation and the economy could unfold differently in the minds of white and blue-collar voters.
This article appears in the Oct. 4, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.