BLOOMINGTON, Ind.— Failing or near-failing grades are mostly what the first year of the 115th Congress had to show for itself, according to the 12th annual Indiana University Center on Representative Government survey of academics across the country who track the work of the legislative branch.
“The experts gave a mostly harsh, negative assessment of Congress, seeing it as a pretty timid, weak institution in terms of its policymaking capability and inclination,” said survey director Edward G. Carmines, Distinguished Professor, Warner O. Chapman Professor of Political Science and Rudy Professor at Indiana University.
“We asked the experts whether Congress is protecting its power from presidential encroachment, and 61 percent gave Congress either a D or F grade on that,” said Carmines. “We asked whether Congress is fulfilling its policymaking responsibilities, and on that, 63 percent gave a grade of either D or F. We asked how well does Congress rely on facts and data to reach conclusions: 52 percent gave a grade of D or F.”
A majority of the experts also gave Congress D or F grades on “keeping special interests in proper bounds” and “representing the interests of the people.”
And a whopping 76 percent of the experts gave a D or F grade on the question, “How would you assess the legislative record of Congress over the past year?”
“The picture that we have is really a rather dim one,” said Carmines.
The news for Congress was not all bad; the experts gave favorable — or at least passing — marks in a few areas. “When we asked whether Congress exercises its proper role in setting the legislative agenda, 34 percent gave an A or B, and another 39 percent gave a C,” Carmines said. “That’s an improvement over what we had seen previously.
“We also asked, ‘Does Congress make its workings and activities open to the public?’ and on that, 39 percent of the experts gave them an A or B, and another 32 percent gave them a C. And when we asked the experts whether Congress makes a good effort to be accessible to their constituents, a full 68 percent gave them an A or B, and another 24 percent a C. So on those questions, Congress did well,” Carmines said.
But those few bright spots in the survey were overshadowed by many negatives.
When asked whether the grounding of Congressional policy debates in facts and expertise has increased, decreased or stayed the same over the last several years, 82 percent of the experts said it has decreased — “a rather astounding number,” said Carmines. Sixty-one percent gave Congress a D or F on considering the long-term implications of policy issues, seeing the legislators as short-sighted.
“Too often in Congress, extreme partisanship crowds out substantive problem-solving,” said Michael M. Sample, IU vice president for public affairs and government relations and director of the Center on Representative Government. “Each party demonizes its adversary; respectful deliberation and civil discourse come to a halt.”
When the survey posed questions asking the experts to compare the House and Senate to each other, the former took a shellacking. On the question, “Does the House allow members in the minority to play a meaningful role,” 79 percent of the experts gave a D or F grade. Only 29 percent had such a negative view of the minority’s opportunity to play a role in the Senate. “When we asked, ‘Does the legislative process in the House involve the proper level of compromise?’ a full 92 percent gave the House a D or F. When it came to the Senate, less than half, 45 percent, said so,” Carmines reported.
In early 2017, with President Trump new to office and Republicans holding majorities in the House and Senate, there was some sentiment that unified government under the GOP might lead to legislative action that enhanced Congress’s image for effectiveness. But a year into the 115th Congress, no such boost is seen in the experts’ survey.
“And there’s not much optimism for the future,” Carmines said. “We asked whether Congress would perform better in the future. A majority, 68 percent, said there would be no change. Another 29 percent said they thought things actually would get worse.” By similar percentages, the experts said they expected political polarization in Congress to remain as bad as it now, or to worsen.
What to do about Congress’s chronic poor grades? “We asked an open-ended question, ‘What is the single most important thing that Congress could do to improve its functioning?’” said Carmines. “We had varied responses from our experts, but four rose to the top. One was the necessity for Congress to restore “regular order” to its proceedings. Campaign finance reform was another. A third, the need for compromise and bipartisanship. And the need to restore competitive elections to the districts of House members” — a goal of those pushing for non-partisan redistricting.
“In general, momentum in both parties seems to be moving toward the extremes, fueling a political debate that rejects the middle ground,” said Lee Hamilton, who served 34 years in the House and is now a distinguished scholar at IU and a senior advisor to the Center on Representative Government. “We need leaders who can rise above the polarization and divisiveness that current politicians have done so much to exacerbate, and instead begin focusing on cooperation, collective purpose, and the common good.”
A section of the survey asked the experts to assess the public’s interaction with and knowledge of Congress. ”What we see is a mixed picture,” Carmines said. “Nearly half the experts gave the public an A or B on ‘contacting members of Congress about issues that concern them.’ Fifty percent gave the public an A or B on ‘working through groups that share their interests to influence Congress.’
But on other measures, the picture is different. “When we asked about the extent to which citizens have an understanding of the main features of Congress, 75 percent of the experts gave them a D or F. And on understanding the role of compromise in Congress, 69 percent gave them a D or F.”
Data on Congress’s performance in 2017 were collected online in January and February 2018; the survey elicited the opinions of a select group of 38 top academic experts on Congress from around the country.