Congress Facing a Big Problem; With Itself

Newly elected Mass. Sen. Ed Markey spoke to supporters Tuesday night after his victory in the special election for John Kerry's Senate seat. He said, "I will seek consensus wherever possible. Like you, I am tired of gridlock. But I will never compromise on our principles."

This quote is admirable but directly highlights the problem Congress finds itself in today. Elected representatives like Markey see the need for consensus and eradicating gridlock. But elected representatives also see the need to avoid compromise. Reaching consensus means reaching agreement on something. In many, if not most, bipartisan situations it's hard to reach agreement without someone shifting their position. With everyone sticking to their principled guns, consensus is not reached and gridlock prevails.

That's clearly a problem as far as the American people are concerned. Our data probing the public for their reasons for disapproving of the job Congress is doing underscore just how much the people, taken as a whole, dislike the partisan bickering, the inability to agree and compromise, and the resulting stalemate in Washington. Our story on these results was, in fact, headlined "Gridlock Is Top Reason Americans Are Critical of Congress." Twenty-eight percent of all Americans who disapprove of Congress said it was because of "Party bickering/gridlock/not compromising," while 21 percent said it was because Congress was not getting anything done/not making decisions.

As a specific example, when we asked Americans last year what they wanted their representatives to do about the pending "fiscal cliff," 70 percent said that they would prefer that government leaders in Washington compromise on their principles and beliefs in order to reach an agreement.

And a question we asked three times in 2010 and 2011 showed that Americans were consistently more likely to say it was important for political leaders in Washington to "compromise in order to get things done" rather than "stick to their beliefs even if little gets done." The last time we asked that question (Sept. 8-11, 2011) the break was 51 percent choosing the former to 28 percent choosing the latter alternative, with 21 percent choosing a midpoint between the two.

Sen. Markey obviously recognizes the existence of these sentiments, as evidenced by his statement that he, too, is tired of gridlock. But his pledge to supporters that he will not compromise on principles shows that he, too, obviously perceives that at least some of his constituents care more about their issue positions than the avoidance of gridlock. His position is, no doubt, shared by many elected representatives. If each elected representative in the House and Senate says that they will never "compromise on [their] principles" we end up with gridlock -- even if they, like Markey, are also tired of stalemate in a broad sense. In other words, compromise is good, but only as long as it is the other person who is doing the compromising.

Scholars have looked into this. One conclusion is that Americans want it both ways -- they want elected officials to do things that are good for the country as a whole (i.e., compromise) even as they want elected officials to do the things that they, the local constituents, want done. Elected officials at the congressional and Senate level are elected by local constituents, not by the country as a whole. It doesn't take a great deal of ratiocination to figure out which way these representatives go. In fact, we know that 46% of Americans approve of the job their member of Congress is doing. Americans say there is a major problem in Washington, but their local representative -- one of the 435 (or one of the 100 in the Senate) -- is much less likely to be seen as the problem. That's probably because those local representatives are paying attention to the specific needs of their constituents.

Many scholars have also looked at the way in which representatives at the congressional district and state level are increasingly locked into more partisan positions than may have been the case in the past. Note that most presidential campaigning last year took place in less than 10 states, meaning that residents in 40 or more states were oriented strongly enough toward either the right or the left to be considered fixed in a presidential election. We know that senators are increasingly polarized. There are certainly fewer House members from districts that can swing either way.

If one is elected from a very strongly right or left district, or from a strongly conservative or liberal state, it can be political suicide to compromise. We have highly partisan media ready to pounce on any elected representative who does not hew the appropriate right or left dogma. All actions, votes, and statements are instantly available for scrutiny by individuals whose primary mission is to generate controversy and readership and clicks -- meaning that representatives who attempt compromise can be quickly called out.

What is the solution? With 17 percent approval ratings and 10 percent confidence ratings for Congress, overall, it is clear that even highly polarized residents of this country don't like what is happening in Washington in the most general sense. We know that the third-most highly cited problem facing the country today according to Americans is dysfunction with government (ahead of immigration, gun control, healthcare, the deficit, and many other issues that take up time in Washington).

Something in the way Americans do things, in terms of their government, is out of whack. Although ratings of Congress have never been robust, they are particularly abysmal at this juncture in history. To me, it seems like a time in which Congress should appoint its own Task Force or committee to look into the way that it, itself, functions; a self-report and analysis as it were. Maybe a Fixing Congress Commission could be created, which, like the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, could operate independently of Congress. The potential downside if nothing is done is the ramification of having a representative body neither respected nor paid attention to by those it represents. And as we have seen throughout history, when a government loses the confidence of its people, all kinds of results can follow.

Dr. Frank Newport is the Editor-in-Chief of Gallup and writes the column, "Polling Matters." Copyright © 2013 Gallup, Inc. All rights reserved. The content is used with permission; however, Gallup retains all rights of republication.