The second session of the 108th U.S. Congress will convene Tuesday (Jan. 20) and once again, representatives will hit the floor running and work diligently to represent the interests of their constituents—or will they?
“Our findings show that many citizens have negative perceptions about how Congress actually does its work.”
Research director, Center on Congress
“This study will add greatly to our understanding of
how citizens perceive and evaluate Congress, including
its role in our representative democracy.”
Director, Center on Congress
According to a national survey conducted by the IU Center on Congress, 86 percent of the respondents believe that members of Congress will lie if it is politically expedient, and nearly 80 percent agree that members of Congress spend more time trying to get re-elected than doing work in the House and Senate.
“Our findings show that many citizens have negative perceptions about how Congress actually does its work,” said political scientist Ted Carmines, research director for the Center on Congress. For example, 70 percent of those surveyed believe that “House and Senate members spend all of their time bickering instead of cooperating” and nearly 60 percent believe that public officials don’t pay much attention to what the public thinks.
The Center on Congress launched the study in September 2002 and received partial funding for the project from the Alliance for Representative Democracy and the U.S. Department of Education. The survey, which involved a random probability sample of 1,500 Americans responding to 130 questions by telephone, is the most comprehensive ever completed on the role of Congress in American politics. The phone survey was conducted by IU’s Center for Survey Research.
The Center on Congress is in the process of putting the results that pertain to Congress on its Web site, and there will be a link to the full survey, titled “Exercising Citizenship in American Democracy” (see Web site at end of story). Carmines is currently writing several papers to summarize the results of the survey, with the intention of presenting the papers at academic conferences and submitting them to political science journals. He and his researchers also plan to write a monograph aimed at a wider audience.
Carmines pointed out that not all of the public opinion on Congress revealed by the survey was negative. “Many citizens believe that they are well represented by Congress, that the work of Congress is important and that it affects their daily lives,” he said. The stats bear that out, with nearly 88 percent of the respondents believing that at least some of the work of Congress has an impact on their daily lives and 75 percent believing that their own representative does a good job.
The study reveals, said Carmines, that although the public has pretty strong opinions about the ethics of members of Congress and the relevance of what they do, it actually has a fairly flimsy understanding of the actual workings of Congress. For example, while 69 percent of the respondents knew that a two-thirds vote in Congress is needed to overturn a presidential veto, only 44 percent knew that a term in the House of Representatives is two years, and only 46 percent knew that a Senate term is six years.
“In summary, most citizens have a general understanding of the function of Congress as a lawmaking body in our constitutional system, but many do not have detailed and specific knowledge of the organization and operation of Congress,” said Carmines.
The Center on Congress, located on the Bloomington campus, has the goal of improving public understanding of Congress. Center director Lee Hamilton, a former Indiana congressman, said that the study “will add greatly to our understanding of how citizens perceive and evaluate Congress, including its role in our representative democracy.”
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