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CBS Poll: Do-Nothing Congress

As members of Congress prepare to leave Washington to campaign for re-election, there are indications that there may be some close races on November 3. While this may not be an anti-incumbent year like 1994, one dangerous sign for Republican incumbents is how few voters can cite Congressional accomplishments this term.

Congress' job rating is down from earlier this year. Now, 43 percent approve of the way Congress is handling its job, while 48 percent disapprove. But 61 percent approve of the way their own representative in Congress is doing his or her job. Voters always give their own members of Congress a higher approval rating than Congress overall.

Negative views of Congress are not quite as pronounced as they were four years ago, when Republicans first took control of the House with a net gain of 52 seats. Then, only 20 percent approved of the way Congress was handling its job.

Congress' Job Rating


And there are clear differences in assessments of Congress overall and of one's own representative. According to two-thirds of voters, most members of Congress don't deserve re-election. Twenty-four percent say most members do. More, 43 percent, say their own representative has performed his or her job well enough to deserve re-election. But 45 percent say it's time for a new person. By the end of the 1994 campaign, only 37 percent thought their representative had done a good enough job, while 53 percent said it was time for a new person.

The chief problem for incumbents could be that people think this Congress has accomplished less than usual, by 45 percent to 29 percent. This negative assessment is only slightly better than it was in mid-October 1994, and worse than it was in mid-October 1996.


'Your' Individual Rep.'s Job Rating


Nearly three-quarters of Americans say they can't name anything Congress has accomplished this year. For those who could name something, the impeachment process was far and away the number one mention of Congressional accomplishment this year, cited by 16 percent. Most of that 16 percent couldn't name anything beyond the impeachment process.

Fifty-one percent do give Congress credit for significantly improving the U.S. economy, something on which President Clinton also gets high marks. But most say Congress has not made progress on other fronts: reforming campaign financing, protecting Social Security and Medicare programs, and protecting patient rights. All of these issues were debated this session, but no legislation was passed.

In the current budget negotiations, it is the president and not Congress who is winning the war of opinion, just as he did during the 1995 government shutdown. Fifty-eight percent say the president is really trying to end the budget standoff with Congress, while only 35 percent think Republicans in Congress are trying to find a solution.

The focus on the Clinton-Lewinsky matter and the impeachment process has dominated the public's assessment of this Congress. Overall, two-thirds see the Clinton-Lewinsky matter and the impeachment inquiry as preventing both Congress and the president from getting important work done.

What Should Congress Do Now?



And when it comes to the next Congress, only 2 percent say the impeachment process is what they want Congress to concentrate on first. The top priorities those polled said Congress should be focusing on were the same issues Americans have cited for years. Eleven percent cite education; 9 percent name the economy in general; 7 percent say health care; and 5 percent name Social Security. Four percent mention poverty, foreign policy, the budget deficit, and jobs. Only 2 percent name taxes.

In general, the public says it disapproves of the way the House Judiciary Committee has been handling the impeachment matter. By 53 percent to 45 percent, the public now disapproves of the decision to begin the impeachment inquiry. By 61 percent to 34 percent, they don't think the Democrats and Republicans on the committee will work together fairly and in a bipartisan manner on the inquiry, and more would blame the Republican majority on the committee than blame the Democrats for that.

Seventy-one percent think the committee won't be able to finish its work by the end of the year, and most say politics will be to blame for that. For two-thirds of Americans, the matter appears to be more about politics than about investigation of possible crimes.

In fact, given three options, Americans are split evenly three ways. Thirty-three percent would choose proceeding with the inquiry as scheduled. Thirty-three percent say they'd favor some sort of compromise, such as censure. Thirty-three percent would drop the matter altogether.

Most voters have yet to focus on the campaign. With less than three weeks to go, just 27 percent of voters say they're paying a lot of attention so far. As Congress finishes up its session and members return home to campaign, there are indications that the elections could be close.

Among all registered voters, 49 percent say they are voting for or leaning towards voting for a Democratic House candidate. Forty-one percent say they are leaning Republican. But among those who say they will definitely vote and who voted in 1994, the vote is closer. Forty-eight percent are voting or leaning towards voting for Democrats; 46 percent for Republicans.

One reason for the eight-point Democratic lead among all registered voters is the high level of Democratic support from groups who say they are less likely to definitely vote in November - voters under 30 and voters with incomes under $30,000.

When the voter screen is further limited to the most likely of the likely voters [those who also say they are now paying a lot of attention to the campaign], 51 percent of voters say they will vote Republican, 44 percent Democratic. However, this turnout screen would be the equivalent of projecting a 15 percent turnout rate - which is less than half the usual turnout for an off-yeaelection.

Republicans usually fare better in the most restrictive turnout estimates for several reasons. Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say they care a lot about the outcome of the election in their district and tend to report voting more in the past. While likely voters are just as negative as all registered voters when asked about the overall performance of Congress, they are more favorable towards their own representative than are all voters. Fifty-one percent of likely voters think their own representative has done a good enough job to deserve re-election. That is compared with 44 percent of all registered voters.

While all registered voters are split on a question about future control of Congress, the more likely voters favor Republican control over Democratic control of Congress. They are also more pro-incumbent than registered voters overall. Forty-nine percent of the very most likely voters [15 percent of the public] say Republicans should control the next Congress. That is compared with 37 percent of all registered voters. And 52 percent of those voters say their own representative deserves re-election. That is compared with 44 percent of all registered voters.

Majorities of potential voters say neither Mr. Clinton nor the scandal nor their representative's vote in favor of the impeachment inquiry will affect their vote on November 3. In fact, two-thirds of voters admit they don't know how their own representative in Congress voted on the impeachment inquiry itself.

Those who say this whole matter will affect their vote are fairly evenly divided pro-Clinton and anti-Clinton. Only 4 percent name the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal or impeachment as something so important they would change their vote. For those who would vote on a single issue, abortion still remains the foremost issue [13 percent of all voters name abortion as that type of issue]. And, as has usually been the case, it is more important for Republican than for Democratic voters.

Overall assessments of President Clinton have remained consistent for the last few months. In this poll, 63 percent of Americans approve of the way he is handling his job. Sixty percent approve of his handling of foreign policy, and 70 percent approve of his handling of the economy. More than eight in 10 continue to describe the nation's economy as being in good shape. However, personal opinion of Mr. Clinton remains split: Forty-two percent say they have a favorable opinion of him, while 42 percent of opinions are unfavorable. And only 28 percent say Mr. Clinton shares the moral values most Americans try to live by.

Three in four people believe Mr. Clinton committed perjury or lied under oath in his grand jury testimony. But even if that were true, most would still not support impeachment or resignation. As for now, 51 percent support censure and 38 percent oppose it. Thirty percent thik it would be better for the country if the president resigned, while more than twice as many say it would be better if he finished his term in office. Thirty-seven percent say the charges are serious enough to warrant impeachment and removal from office. And despite all of this, 64 percent of Americans continue to say Mr. Clinton can still be an effective president.

Reflecting the Republican edge in the strictest turnout estimate, the most likely voter group is more willing to say the president should resign or be impeached [though majorities in these groups still oppose both].

This poll was conducted among a nationwide random sample of 926 adults, interviewed by telephone October 12-13, 1998. The error due to sampling could be plus or minus three percentage points for results based on the entire sample. Sampling error for results based on the 794 registered voters is plus or minus four percentage points.
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