Congress must listen to the people

Congress must listen to the people
© Stefani Reynolds

As the new session of Congress kicks off, there is substantial concern that it is headed for the same kind of gridlock as in the last one. Indeed, 2020 was the least productive year for Congress in recent memory. The violent clashes at the Capitol this week have further added to the public notion of a fractured country. One of the common reasons for this state of affairs is that Americans are divided on the issues and there is little that lawmakers can do without fear of backlash from their constituents.

While there are groups of Americans who are intensely divided, there is strong evidence of shared interests in the public and that if members of Congress were guided in the sensibilities of their constituents, they can have one of the most productive sessions in history. Several legislative proposals stuck inside committee in the last session of Congress elicit majority support from both Democrats and Republicans.

This is the conclusion of a research project from Voice of the People and Common Ground Solutions. It looks at a series of surveys, most of which were conducted by the Program for Public Consultation with University of Maryland. Respondents did an online exercise where they were briefed on policy proposals then considered arguments for and against each before making recommendations. The content was evaluated by opponents and proponents of every policy to ensure accuracy and balance, and to have the strongest arguments. The project also included data from the Center for Deliberative Democracy based at Stanford University.

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Based on the limited number of surveys, we found over 60 proposals in legislation, across a broad range for policy areas, with majority support from Democrats and Republicans. Let us view, for instance, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which calls for a slate of police reforms. Of ten critical proposals in the bill, six garnered bipartisan majority support, such as making it a duty for officers to intervene when other officers use excessive force and creating a national database for police misconduct. Although the other four proposals in the bill found majority support only with Democrats and independents, the majority of Republicans with our project indicated that they found the proposals tolerable.

Our project found bipartisan support for some proposals that appeal to both liberals and conservatives. Majorities favor a path to citizenship for the undocumented immigrants and raising the number of guest worker visas, but also more efforts to deter illegal immigration by mandating all employers to utilize the online verification system to ensure staffers are authorized to work in the United States. Majorities favor raising the limit on income subject to payroll taxes to address the Social Security crisis, but also the idea of increasing the federal retirement age.

Majorities would also extend the waiting periods before any members of Congress and senior staffers can become lobbyists, and support a variety of proposals to increase transparency with the campaign finance system. Americans do not concur on everything. The research found many issues of partisan division, such as the idea of Medicare for All or building a wall on the southern border. Congress can continue a debate on the areas of difference and establish their bona fides with their bases.

At the same time, they can go after the low hanging fruit. Lawmakers can achieve easy and popular wins with reintroducing proposals with majority support in the new session. Action on policy that wide swaths of ordinary Americans like is what we need to resuscitate confidence in the ability of Congress to govern. We could finally see some revival of public approval of the institution at less than 20 percent. It seems almost like nature that Congress is divided, but our elected representatives have a chance right now to start healing the wounds of the last few years. A path to achieve this is clear, if our lawmakers let the people lead the way.

Steven Kull is founder and president of Voice of the People and serves as director of the Program for Public Consultation at University of Maryland. Jillian Youngblood is executive director with Common Ground Solutions.