I suppose it's possible that Congress could enjoy even less popularity than it does at the moment, but it's difficult to imagine. Recent public opinion polls show it plumbing depths that have rarely been seen before.
Certainly that's true of a survey just conducted the Center on Congress at Indiana University, which I direct. Every year, we measure national public opinion about Congress in an effort to gauge how relevant it is to Americans' lives, and whether they feel it's living up to the Framers' expectation that it serve as "the people's branch" of the federal government. This year, a jaw-dropping 84 percent of those we surveyed said they disapprove of the job Congress is doing.
If this were all the survey had found, it would be bad enough. But Americans consistently grade Congress at a D or worse on such fundamental measures as whether it is dealing with key issues facing the country, keeping excessive partisanship in check, holding its members to high ethical standards, and controlling the influence of special interests.
Even worse, when asked, "What do you think is the main thing that influences what members of Congress do in office," an abysmal 84 percent believe that either "personal interest" or "special interests" drive congressional action. Very few people, in other words, believe that members of Congress have the best interests of the country, or even of their constituents, at heart.
This may be why proposals like the "Congressional Reform Act of 2011," a set of suggestions for stripping members of Congress of alleged perquisites, have enjoyed such popularity in online forums. Parts of the proposal are based on misleading or outdated information — contrary to the text circulating on the web, members of Congress do pay Social Security taxes, for instance; and their pensions are generous, but not outlandish, averaging $36,732 a year for those who pay into the federal retirement fund that has existed since 1984.
Nonetheless, the perception that members enjoy benefits unavailable to ordinary Americans is widespread, and occasionally right. For instance, while members of Congress participate in a health-insurance program similar to other federal employees, mainly for their families, they also have free or very modest cost access to care in the Capitol, including annual physical exams, and to superb outpatient care and other services at military hospitals such as Bethesda Naval Hospital.
So congressional reform initiatives that take aim at legitimate issues ought to have a place at the table; especially in tough times, it's important for Congress not to appear to be getting special breaks at the taxpayer's expense.
Still, in the end, these fixes are not the most important issue.
The more fundamental questions have to do with how Congress behaves. Ordinary citizens believe that members of Congress pay close attention to special interests because, in fact, they do. There's a widespread belief that Capitol Hill protects its own when it comes to ethical transgressions because there has been far too great a reluctance to pursue misbehavior aggressively.
People are tired of partisan gamesmanship because, quite simply, there's been too much of it. Voters feel ignored — or at least unheard — because for all the efforts members of Congress put into communicating with their constituents, so much of their time is spent with donors, party activists, and like-minded supporters that the multitude of their constituents' concerns can go unappreciated, and their legislative duties are neglected.
There are remedies for all of these issues, from beefing up ethics enforcement, to strengthening loblimits and disclosure laws, to recognizing that partisanship and the narrow political bases that feed it have created a true crisis of confidence in our representative system. Congress has it within its own power to reverse its dangerous fall in the public's estimation.
But the American people, too, have a role to play. Looking at the shifts in congressional standing over a period of decades, a trio of political scientists — the late Robert Durr of Washington University, John Gilmour of William & Mary, and Christina Wolbrecht of Notre Dame — came to a startling conclusion a number of years ago: that Congress often suffers for doing what it's supposed to do.
"As the representatives of a diverse and heterogeneous country, members seldom find themselves in agreement," they wrote. "To the public, then, the very activities which characterize Congress and the legislative process — deliberation, debate, and decision making — cause it to appear quarrelsome, unproductive, and controversial, and thus, diminish it in the public eye."
The poll findings the Center on Congress and others clearly ought to alarm congressional leaders and encourage them to look deeply at their institution's behavior. But they also should serve as a spur to ordinary citizens not to write Congress off, but to seek to understand it better, take aim at the fundamental problems, and avoid deriding Congress for doing what it was set up to do: debate, deliberate, and make decisions for a diverse and often contentious nation.
Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.