Recent polls show that Americans aren't at all impressed with our U.S. Congress. Really. I know you're shocked to hear it, but it's true. In fact, a recent AP poll shows that 73% of Americans disapprove of the job Congress is doing, while only 22% approve. These are the lowest numbers in decades. Oh, and in case you're wondering if the question was "leading", it wasn't. Here is specifically what people were asked:
"Overall, do you approve, disapprove or have mixed feelings about the way Congress is handling its job?"
I don't know about you, but I don't think there are a lot of ways to misinterpret that question.
So what's behind all this crankiness? Well, I think a few key factors are coming together in a sort of "perfect storm" for members of Congress. What are they? I'm glad you asked.
Reason #1: Candidates Over Promising
In the 2006 elections, with Democrats eager to take over the House and Senate, there were a whole lot of promises made by candidates about getting the U.S. out of Iraq quickly. If you haven't noticed, we're still in Iraq. In fact, most of the increase in disapproval ratings comes from annoyed liberal Democrats who assumed that once Democrats took over Congress, all would be well (from their perspective).
Here's the thing, though. Frankly, there's no way in heck that any single member of Congress can have any impact at all on an issue of such national scope - much less quickly. In the legislative process it takes a minimum of 271 policy makers (½ the House plus ½ the Senate plus the President) to reach agreement on anything before it can be implemented. 271 people simply aren't going to make quick decisions.
Clearly, candidates and incumbents alike do a disservice to their constituents when they promise things that, because of the nature of the institution, they can't deliver. As citizens, we have a responsibility to call them on it every once in a while, right?
Reason #2: No One Understands What "The Job" Is
But the problem isn't just with unscrupulous politicians making promises they can't keep. In fact, a major part of the problem is that very few people - candidates and citizens alike - have any idea what "Congress' job" is! When asked, most people would say that it is Congress' job to pass legislation. Period. So naturally it's disappointing when we hear that of the 10,000 bills introduced in a Congressional session, only about 4% pass.
The truth is, though, that while Congress as an institution is the branch of our government designated to make laws as necessary and appropriate, it is the job of individual members of Congress to represent the interests of the district or state they've been elected to serve. More often than not, these two objectives are at odds. It's like asking United Airlines to run a national flight schedule while telling individual pilots they can fly wherever they want (granted, this summer it's felt a little like that).
It seems to me that to clarify the position for candidates and citizens alike, we need a job description for members of Congress, maybe something along the following lines:
Wanted. Genial, ethical, trustworthy, highly intelligent, photogenic worker who plays well with others. Must be willing to fight tooth and nail for the interests of his or her region while also maintaining a national perspective. Will be responsible for approximately 750,000 to several million customers, depending on the region. Must be able to work independently, but not TOO independently.
Duties include responding to several thousand to several million communications per month, meeting with customers as requested, introducing and pursuing policy initiatives and attending meetings as called at random by institution leadership. Must be willing to work 24 hours per day, seven days per week. Will need to raise own funds to maintain position (on own time).
Benefits include salary that must be used to maintain two households, full health coverage and pension, the occasional under $25 lunch and the thrill of being called "The Honorable." Workers will also be treated with deference by many (and with derision by many more). In addition, effective workers will have the ability to make a difference for people in their communities
OK, I'll grant that this doesn't include a full description of either the duties or the benefits, but it does, hopefully give us a different perspective on what Congress "does." I'll be the first to admit that many current members of Congress are under qualified for the position, and that's why we have elections.
Reason #3: Citizens Expect Too Much
Finally, fueled by the combination of candidates over-promising and a lack of understanding about what Congress does, citizens have come to expect too much from Congress. There it is. I've said it. I know that many people will tell me that "we pay their salaries" and that "we have a right to expect more" and I agree! We should expect a great deal from our representatives in government.
What should we expect of them? We should expect them to represent the interests of the region they are elected to serve in the best way they can during the consideration of legislation. And what should we expect of Congress as an institution? We should expect Congress to very slowly and very deliberately, with much rancor, debate and compromise, pull all the various interests together into one cohesive whole.
Hmm, seems like that's what's happening. Maybe it's a little too much "rancor, debate and compromise" for the majority of Americans and, if so, it's definitely time to look at how the institution is structured. Because believe me, the U.S. Congress will never become a lean, mean, policy-making machine without some major changes.
All that said, it doesn't seem reasonable or responsible to leave it at "gee, that's how Congress is." I mean, we all want a government that we can approve of and believe in, right? So, how can you and your organization make a difference? Here are a few ideas:
* Help advocates understand what Congress can and cannot do for them. There are some resources on my site that may be useful. Or you can download our advocacy checklist in our Article Vault. Another great resource is Open Congress
* Let candidates know that making promises they can't keep is grounds for dismissal. At the same time, be clear about your criteria - one great way to do so is through a candidate survey. If you're considering running one, let us know! We might be able to help.
* Vote! If you think a member of Congress doesn't live up to the job description, find someone who will. Register to vote at http://www.beavoter.org
* Come up with your own ideas for reform - if you want a Congress that will "get things done" and/or is "more responsive" then help take the steps necessary to get there (recognizing that those goals may be mutually exclusive). Do you think we should have fewer Representatives? A different process? More public participation? Share your ideas - and your enthusiasm!
Armed with your ideas, support and positive advocacy efforts, perhaps we can make Congress an institution we can all be proud of - or at least not be really, really annoyed at!