It’s Not Just Congress: Citizens Also Have Room To Improve

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Do Americans understand the main features of Congress and how it works? Do we grasp that in a politically and socially diverse country, most legislation simply cannot be crafted without compromise? Without the informed understanding and active involvement of the American people, Congress will continue to flounder.

As a member of Congress, you get used to being graded. Interest groups send you questionnaires, check your voting record, and then issue their “report cards.” Editorial writers opine freely on your performance. Pollsters issue monthly updates on how Congress is faring with the public.

Members of Congress learn to expect this judgment and criticism. It’s part of being an elected official in this country — and should be.

But they also learn that Congress is part of a larger political system that also involves We The People. Our democracy doesn’t just require its institutions and political leaders to function well; it works best when we, as citizens, all do our part. So at this moment when Congress’s public standing is at an all-time low, it’s natural to wonder: how are the American people doing at holding up their end of the bargain?

Every year, the Center on Congress at Indiana University surveys political scientists around the country to get their sense of how Congress is functioning. But it recognizes that Congress is just one part of the picture, and so it also asks these 40 experts how Americans as a whole are doing at playing the constructive role our system demands of them.

The questions are instructive, because they give you a sense of a citizen’s responsibilities. How well do people actually keep in touch with their members of Congress, for instance? Communication between elected officials and the people they represent — ordinary people with ordinary concerns — is the lifeblood of a representative democracy. It can happen through letters, emails, phone calls and visits; through the interest groups many people join; and through voting. On all of these fronts, a majority of the experts surveyed give Americans about a C average for their participation.

If we’re to pass judgment on Congress, then it’s also worth asking how much we actually understand it. If we want it to improve, how much do we know about what it does and how it operates? The experts surveyed take a pretty dim view of Americans’ performance.

How regularly do Americans follow what’s actually going on in Congress? Most of those surveyed gave the country at best a D.

How well do Americans understand the main features of Congress and how it works? Almost two-thirds of the respondents handed out a D, while most of the rest gave us an F.

Do Americans have a reasonable understanding of what Congress can and should do? In other words, do they understand the powers given to Congress by the Constitution, and its role in executing those constitutional powers? D’s and F’s again.

Especially noteworthy is their low opinion of Americans’ grasp of the importance of compromise. In a politically and socially diverse country, with two houses of Congress and a president all able to weigh in, most legislation simply cannot be crafted without some measure of compromise. Most of the experts surveyed believe that many Americans don’t understand this. They hold a similarly low opinion of the media’s ability to explain how Congress works to readers and viewers.

Now, these are the opinions of a handful of political experts. The point is not to berate our fellow citizens for their ignorance, but to understand that if we want Congress to improve, it is not just up to its members to make it happen. Congress will change when we insist that it change.

We can take a lesson from Will Rogers. His statue in the U.S. Capitol is the only one directly facing the House chamber, honoring his shrewd comment: “I always keep my eye on Congress to see what they’re up to.” All of us need to do this: communicate more fully and openly with our representatives; learn Congress’s responsibilities and how it fulfills them — and, even more importantly, how it should fulfill them; and recognize that if we don’t like intense partisanship and political games-playing, then we need to give our representatives room to craft legislation with broad appeal.

Without the informed understanding of the American people, in other words, Congress will continue to flounder. And if it does, it won’t just be its members’ fault.

(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.)