When Gallup reported the job approval rating for Congress after the 2014 midterm elections, the news was not good. In spite of the fact that 96% of incumbents running for re-election to the House and 82% of those running for the Senate were re-elected, only 15% of the public approved of the way Congress was handling its job and 78% disapproved. As the graph below indicates, this data point is not an anomaly. Job approval ratings for Congress have been less than 20% since 2010. Congress has seen better days, though not much better. In the past 40 years, public approval of Congress exceeded 50% only for a short period following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001; it has routinely been below 40% and frequently below 30%.
The dismal public outlook on Congress may simply reflect the dilemma of the two Congresses—individual representatives are serving the people well, but Congress has difficulty taking collective action. The lawmaking process, as designed by the framers, is inherently messy and riddled with conflict. Based on analysis of public attitudes about Congress, Hibbing and Thiess-Morse infer:
People do not wish to see uncertainty, conflicting opinions, long debate, competing interests, confusion, bargaining, and compromised, imperfect solutions. They want a government to do its job quietly and efficiently, sans conflict and sans fuss. In short…they often seek a patently unrealistic form of democracy.
— Hibbing and Theiss-Morse (1995), Congress as Public Enemy
Simply put, the people approve of their representatives, but disapprove of Congress.
Nonetheless, public opinion is an integral part of representation, and it is through public support that Congress attains the legitimacy required to act in the public interest. Although James Madison probably would not have overreacted to the latest results of a Gallup poll, he took seriously the role of public opinion in a republican form of government. Political scientist Colleen Sheehan points out that Madison developed his thoughts on public opinion in his Notes on Government (1791-1792), where he observes that “Public opinion, sets the bounds on every Government, and is the real sovereign in every free one.”
In this module we consider the linkage between Congress and the American people. We identify some of the causes and consequences of inaction in the contemporary Congress. We proceed with several reform proposals designed to improve Congress, with the assumption that a more deliberative, less polarized, and more formidable Congress should help to restore the confidence of the public. We conclude, perhaps as Madison himself might, by suggesting that government depends partly on institutional design and partly on effective leadership.