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What happened to Congress? And how can it regain its standing?

What happened to Congress? And how can it regain its standing?
© Greg Nash

In May 1834, Daniel WebsterDaniel Alan WebsterNo longer second fiddle Hillicon Valley: House votes to condemn QAnon | Americans worried about foreign election interference | DHS confirms request to tap protester phones House approves measure condemning QAnon, but 17 Republicans vote against it MORE delivered an eloquent rebuke of Andrew Jackson’s contention that the Senate did not have the right to censure a President. “We have been taught,” Webster reminded Jackson, “to regard a representative of the people as a sentinel on the watch-tower of liberty.” Sadly, today most Americans don’t consider Congress any such thing.  

Since April 1974, when Gallup conducted its first public poll, a vast majority of the approval ratings of Congress have been below 50 percent. Congress received its highest rating of 84 percent a month after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but its approval trajectory since has generally been downward. Its current rating is 21 percent (July 30-Aug. 12, 2020).

Polls provide the specific viewpoint of those interviewed, but do not tell why people believe as they do. That is the work of political analysts, social scientists, and scholars. Their observations, together with the opinions of interviewees, show that America’s sentiments regarding Congress mirrors both America’s polarization and congressional dysfunction.

For many, the media is a primary source in promoting conflict. Good things may be happening in Congress, but the electorate is never given an unbiased perspective. Social media posts and political pundits frequently do not ring true. It is hard to tell the difference between opinion and news, facts and non-facts, and journalism and entertainment when politics is reduced to sound bites.

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Congress, voters believe, cannot be trusted to act responsibly, come to grips with important issues, consider the best interest of the people, weigh public opinion, spend money responsibly, or present a clear plan to voters. Also, Congress doesn’t work enough, get anything done, lacks accountability, waffles too much, is only interested in serving special interests, and often ignores its constitution power to be a check on the executive branch and conduct meaningful oversight.

A more functional Congress would be one where money is less of an obsession, district mapmaking did not mean electoral destiny, members do more mingling, and institutional respect replaced callousness — where the focus was on fresh ideas and there was an honest acceptance of the reality that special interest groups are monumental deterrents to compromise.

Both candidates and incumbents are seen as often pursuing victory while running down the very institution they want to be a part of, and partisanship is primarily caused by the inability of congressmen to work together, rather than by ideological differences.

How Congress schedules votes and makes laws is one of the most important factors given for partisan division. If a bill passes with large, bipartisan support, the majority party has gained little advantage. As a consequence, the majority has little incentive to support a bill popular with the minority, and the minority little incentive to support a majority bill.

“Hostility to the opposition party and its candidates has now reached a level where loathing motivates voters more than loyalty,” journalist Thomas B. Edsall found. “Anger has become the primary tool for motivating voters.”

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Pew polling found that 75 percent of Democrats said Republicans were more “closed minded” than other Americans; 64 percent of Republicans held that view about Democrats. The same poll revealed 55 percent of Republicans and 47 percent of Democrats viewed members of the other party “as more immoral than other Americans.” Americans find it “stressful and frustrating” to talk about politics with someone of a differing opinion, and say we need to change how we talk to each other on social media and in real life.

Much has changed with the passing of the “Greatest Generation” who faced the trials of the Great Depression, World War II, and demonstrated a willingness to sacrifice for their country. They were concerned about the general welfare of the country and adhered to a shared civic faith. Historically, compromises and shared values are what has tied Americans together despite our differences.  

America doesn’t need to rewire the political DNA of voters or elect an entirely new crop of Representatives and Senators. Civility, however, does need to be restored as part of the American fabric. Congress needs rules and procedures that give legislators the chance to grapple with the key issues. The historic compromises achieved by earlier Congresses moved America forward when it was needed most. Ours is another critical moment when we, as a nation, must come together.

Stephen W. Stathis was a specialist in American history for the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress for nearly four decades. He is the author of Landmark Debates in Congress: From the Declaration of Independence to the War in Iraq, and Landmark Legislation: Major U.S. Acts and Treaties 1774-2012.