Many challenges await the 109th Congress as it returns from recess — including improving its own standing with the American public. Americans generally see Congress as a legislature that bickers far too much, and that attends more to politics than to problem-solving. Attitudes toward Congress cut across partisan lines: both Republicans and Democrats in Congress have managed to vex many of their own partisans in the nation.
In polling conducted July 29 to Aug. 2, just as Congress left Washington for its annual break, just a third of Americans said they approved its job performance up to that point. That rating was unchanged from earlier in the summer, and remained down from the 44 percent measured in January, when members were first sworn in for the session.
CONGRESS' JOB APPROVAL
Just 40 percent of Republicans — whose party controls both houses — approve; 49 percent disapprove. Even more independents and, perhaps not surprisingly, more Democrats disapprove. Congressional approval historically tends to be low, and has rarely moved above the 50 percent mark since this poll began asking about it in 1977.
Partisan antagonism is not driving this disapproval — in fact, Americans are looking for less partisanship and more cooperation on matters of real concern to them. When those who disapprove of Congress were asked to say why in their own words, the bulk of responses centered on the notions that Congress has too much partisan arguing (20 percent), has the wrong priorities (14 percent), and doesn't seem to care about ordinary Americans (9 percent).
THOSE WHO DISAPPROVE OF CONGRESS: REASONS WHY
Too much partisan arguing/bickering
Wrong priorities/ not addressing key issues
Don't care about people like me
Don't stand up to Bush enough 6%
6% of disapproving Americans were disappointed that Congress had not stood up to the Bush Administration, and only 3% disapproved of Congress simply because it is controlled by the GOP.
Among the minority of Americans who do approve of Congress, the bulk of them — 41 percent — can't say exactly why. Those who approve and can offer a reason mainly point to the same traits of achievement and efficacy as Americans who disapprove do, though they see different results. Twenty-one percent see progress on getting things done and 7 percent say Congress is fighting for things they care about. Eight percent approve of what they see as Congress standing up to Bush.
THOSE WHO APPROVE OF CONGRESS: REASONS WHY
They're getting things done
Standing up to Bush
Fighting for issues I care about
Nothing specific/Don't know
In fact, few Americans can name, off the top of their minds, anything that Congress has done recently. Asked what recent accomplishment most stands out to them, 78 percent cannot think of anything. Three percent cite judicial confirmations, and memories of the Terri Schiavo case linger for a few – more so than the scant 1 percent who mention the new energy bill.
ONE THING CONGRESS HAS DONE THAT STICKS OUT IN MIND?
Terri Schiavo case
Energy bill 1
Asked whether or not Congress shares their priorities, just 25 percent of American say yes. While low, this is up slightly from June, when just 19 percent said so.
DOES CONGRESS SHARE YOUR PRIORITIES?
Americans are very cynical about why Congress hits the impasses that so many lament: 88 percent say the inability to get things done is the result of Congress thinking about politics, not having true disagreements about policy.
Just over half of Americans – 53 percent - do think Congress works hard. (Though given that many also think they're working on the wrong priorities, this may not be such a good thing for the legislators.) This view of Congress' work habits isn't much different than it was over 10 years ago, just before the Republicans captured the House.
THE PARTIES IN CONGRESS
Opinions of both parties in Congress remain under the 50 percent approval mark, and neither holds an edge in favorability among the public. Forty-three percent have a favorable view of the Republicans in Congress, and 44 percent a favorable one of the Democrats.
VIEWS OF THE PARTIES IN CONGRESS
Both parties in Congress inspire a range of sentiments among Americans. They've made most Americans pleased, confident and even scared at one time or another – but the parties have angered even more of them.
These feelings of anger reach beyond partisan lines. Congressional Republicans and Democrats have each managed to make their own partisan loyalists mad at one time or another. Congressional GOP members have angered 65 percent of the nation's Republicans at one time or another; Congressional Democrats have angered 68 percent of theirs. Both parties have angered three out of four Independents.
But there's also good news for those looking for a bridge across the partisan divide: while each of the parties is still more likely to anger or even scare the other side's partisans, the GOP Congress has pleased almost half (47 percent) of the country's Democrats at some point. Congressional Democrats have shown some crossover appeal, as well, pleasing 56 percent of the nation's Republicans at one time or another.
Ideology plays a role, too: conservative GOPers are more likely to be pleased by the Republicans in Congress than are the moderate Republicans. And they're more likely to be angered by the Democrats.
Legislative arguments – especially those that end in an impasse - often find the parties accusing each other of being out of the mainstream. Americans overall don't see either Congressional party as too extreme, but ideology tints this evaluation: moderates find the GOP Congress too extreme, as do liberals, while conservatives do not.
The Democrats in Congress fare better among the country's moderates. Neither moderates nor liberals (no surprise) think Congressional Democrats are too extreme; conservatives do. Overall, the Democrats aren't seen as being as extreme as the GOP.
Most Americans do believe it matters which of the parties controls Congress: 73 percent say it matters at least somewhat, including 42 percent who say it matters a lot.
Congressional representatives sometimes do reach across the aisle, of course, often noting that they share a common interest in moving the country forward that transcends politics. But when ordinary Americans look at each other across the partisan divide – when Democrats look at Republicans and vice-versa – many don't see people who share the same goals or values.
Forty-nine percent of the nation's Democrats think that Republicans are not just people who disagree with them politically — but that Republicans also do not have other goals and values in common with them, either.
DEMOCRATS: DO REPUBLICANS SHARE YOUR GOALS & VALUES BEYOND POLITICS?
Yes, they probably do
No, they probably don't
Republicans are somewhat more willing to see similarities beyond politics when they look at Democrats. 56% of Republicans think Democrats probably share their other goals and values, even if they disagree politically.
REPUBLICANS: DO DEMOCRATS SHARE YOUR GOALS & VALUES BEYOND POLITICS?
Yes, they probably do
No, they probably don't
Most Independents see differences as being relegated to politics: they think both Republicans and Democrats share other values and goals with them.
In late November 2004, just after President Bush defeated Senator John Kerry, 53 percent of people who voted for Bush said that Kerry voters didn't share their non-political values or goals. Fifty-six percent of Kerry's voters thought Bush supporters didn't have values or goals in common with them, either.
This poll was conducted among a nationwide random sample of 1222 adults, interviewed by telephone July 29-August 2, 2005. The error due to sampling could be plus or minus three percentage points for results based on all adults. Error for subgroups is higher.