Experts Surveyed on Congress’ Performance Give The Institution a “C” for 2012

Monday, February 4, 2013

Experts on Congress gave the institution a weak “C” for its work in 2012. It’s a mediocre grade, but might suggest that the national legislature’s slide toward rock-bottom could have halted.

“There’s a little more positivity in the experts’ evaluations for 2012,” said Indiana University political scientist Edward G. Carmines, who is Director of Research for the Center on Congress at Indiana University. “It’s closer to a C than a C-minus, which was Congress’ grade for 2011.”

This is the seventh year that the non-partisan Center has conducted its experts’ survey. “Our interest is not to dwell on past shortcomings, but to develop a sense of what areas are most in need of improvement, as well as what areas are generally handled well by Congress,” explained Center Director Lee Hamilton.

The experts’ ratings of Congress have never been lofty; the overall grade reached C-plus in 2008 and 2010. Data on 2012 were collected online in early January, after the 112th Congress adjourned; the survey elicited the opinions of a select group of 53 top academic experts on Congress from around the country. 

Carmines emphasizes that Congress’s grade for 2012 is only an “uptick” over 2011. The experts’ views of the second and first years of the 112th Congress are “not fundamentally different,” he said. In one of the survey’s open-ended questions, an expert commented, “As a lifelong Congress scholar, I found the 112th Congress disturbing and depressing. Not since the 1850s has Congress responded to so much crisis with so little action.”

Words such as “dismal” and “distressing” came up as Carmines described the experts’ evaluations on a range of questions in the survey. “This is certainly not, by any stretch of the imagination, a positive assessment of Congress,” he said.

“The experts continue to be critical of Congress in terms of how it carries out its national policymaking responsibilities, giving a D grade on that. They see Congress as too focused on the short-term, not looking at the long-term implications of policy issues: another D grade. And they’re also critical of Congress in terms of keeping special interests in proper bounds: a D-plus grade on that.”

“Probably the most discouraging finding of all comes when we ask the experts, ‘Overall, how would you assess the legislative record of Congress over this past year?’ A full 89 percent gave Congress a D or an F on that, and only 1.9 percent gave it a B. No one gave it an A.

“Having said that, there are a few things that the experts think Congress does well. They give members of Congress a B grade for being accessible to their constituents, and a B-minus for making their workings and activities open to the public.” Congress managed a C-plus on the question, “Do legislators broadly reflect the interests of their constituents?”

The survey included questions asking the experts to separately evaluate each of the two chambers of Congress. “Consistently, the House is rated lower in its performance than the Senate,” Carmines said. On the question of ‘keeping excessive partisanship in check,’ the Senate’s grade was poor (D), but the House’s was worse (F). And the House got a D-minus on the question, “Does the legislative process involve a proper level of compromise, consensus?” whereas the Senate earned a C-minus. On “engaging in productive discussion,” the House grade was a D, the Senate’s a C-minus.

“Some of this differential is to be expected,” Carmines explained. “We know that the rules of the House do not allow as much minority influence in that chamber as in the Senate. This comes through in our survey. When we ask, ‘Does the House allow members in the minority to play a role?’ the House gets a D on that; the Senate gets a B on allowing members in its minority to play a role. That’s because the filibuster can be used.”

But even allowing for the chambers’ inherent differences, Carmines said, “on a whole string of things, the Senate is seen as more able and more effective than the House.”

This dimmer view of the House extends to how the experts assess the chambers’ leadership. The effectiveness of the House leadership is graded a D-plus for the majority Republicans and a C for the minority Democrats. In the Senate, slightly higher grades are given to both parties’ leaderships — C-plusses for the Democratic majority and the Republican minority.

The survey for 2012 was conducted on the heels of intense congressional debate on the “fiscal cliff” and on federal aid in response to superstorm Sandy. “In both instances,” Carmines said, “it was the Senate that had to act first, and then the House came along.” That was a familiar script in the 112th Congress, and seems to have led the experts to see the House “as a greater stumbling block,” Carmines said.

“Increasingly, it’s been up to the Senate — where you have more moderate Democrats and Republicans than in the House — to see if something can be worked out on these very contentious issues. If the Senate is able to work them out, then sometimes the House will come along, even though it is very reluctant to do so.

“All this combines to bring the Senate a more favorable reading from the experts,” Carmines said.

For the first time, the experts’ survey included questions about civility in Congress. That’s a topic the Center explored in another of its survey projects — a nationwide poll of 1000 people completed in September and October 2012 by the internet polling firm YouGov Polimetrix.

“In general, what we see is that the public views incivility as more of a problem than the experts do,” said Carmines. In the public survey, 65 percent described incivility in Congress as a “major problem,” compared to 46 percent for the experts. More than half the public said the tone of debate in Congress over the past several years has gotten “considerably worse,” but 42 percent of the experts held that view.

“It appears that the experts may have a higher tolerance for extended and vigorous debate, even if the tone sometimes becomes harsh and unpleasant,” Carmines said.

The public attributed incivility in Congress more to the members, party leaders, the media, and political campaigns than to the voters. The experts gave the public equal blame; one-third of them saw voters as a “major factor” contributing to incivility, and another 62 percent “somewhat of a factor.”

As in the past, the 2012 survey included a set of questions asking the experts to assess the public’s knowledge of and interaction with Congress. In the seven-year history of the survey, the public has never received high marks, and the same was the case for 2012.

The public got across-the-board D grades for “following what is going on in Congress on a regular basis,” for “understanding the main features of Congress and how it works,” for “having a reasonable understanding of what Congress can and should do,” for “understanding the role of compromise in Congress,” and for “being able to get to the core facts of issues before Congress.”

The experts gave citizens C grades for “contacting their members of Congress on issues that concern them” and for “working through groups that share their interests to influence Congress.”

The experts also gave citizens a C grade on a general question about their civic engagement: “Given their time commitments, how well do citizens do with their overall level of civic involvement?”

The media were not spared opprobrium: On the survey question, “How well does the media coverage of Congress contribute to the public’s understanding of Congress?” the experts slapped journalists with D-plus grade. “It’s a pretty sour evaluation of the media’s contribution,” said Carmines.

2012 Survey Data:

Select Questions and Responses