BLOOMINGTON, Ind., April 4 — The good news for Congress, says a group of experts who study the institution, is that its performance in 2018 was somewhat less awful than in the year previous.
That faint praise is the key takeaway from the newest survey of scholars of Congress, an annual undertaking of the Indiana University Center on Representative Government. The Center elicited the views of 29 academics across the country about the job performance of lawmakers in the second session of the 115th Congress. The survey was conducted after the 115th adjourned in early 2019.
“The Congress is not rated well, or even moderately well, but it’s viewed less negatively, on the whole, than it was in 2017,” said survey director Edward G. Carmines, Distinguished Professor, Warner O. Chapman Professor of Political Science and Rudy Professor at Indiana University.
Carmines cited several survey questions on which Congress showed year-over-year improvement. “Question 5 on our survey — ‘Does the House follow good process in conducting its business?’: In 2017, 68 percent of our experts gave the House a grade of D or F,” Carmines said. “For 2018, that’s down to 34 percent. That’s quite an improvement. For the Senate, it’s 45 percent D or F this time, compared to 53 percent in 2017. That’s a more modest change, but at least it’s an improvement.
“Question 7 — ‘Does the legislative process in the House involve a proper level of compromise?’: 75 percent of the experts this time gave the House a D or an F. That’s bad, but not as bad as the astounding 92 percent who gave the House a D or F grade in 2017.
“Question 14 — ‘How well does Congress rely on facts and data to reach its decision?’: For 2018, 28 percent gave legislators a D or F, noticeably improved over the 52 percent who said that in 2017.
“Question 15 — ‘Does Congress consider the long-term implications of policy issues, not just short-term?’: In 2017, 61 percent gave Congress a D or F on that; this year, only 44 percent graded legislators D or F.”
In 2017, 39 percent of the experts gave Congress a D or F for letting political games-playing, rather than substantive policy differences, cause conflict in the legislative process. In 2018, there was improvement — only 24 percent gave D or F grades on that count.
And as for Congress exercising its proper role in determining the federal budget, 41 percent rated Congress D or F on that in 2017, compared to 32 percent giving the poorest grades in 2018.
Carmines believes that one cause for the “noticeable uptick” in the experts’ evaluation of Congress from 2017 to 2018 is that “there were some real accomplishments during the second session of the 115th Congress” — such as legislation reforming the federal criminal justice system and passage of a farm bill (both measures that drew bipartisan support), and tax-law overhaul, which was pushed through by the Republican majority after a polarizing partisan debate, but still counts as a legislative achievement.
Carmines hastens to add, though, that “The experts are, on the whole, negative in their evaluation” of Congress. “It’s still a pretty dim picture.” The longest partial government shutdown in history, stalemate on comprehensive immigration reform and health policy — these were among the failings of Congress in 2018 that led experts to judge the institution harshly.
On the question, ‘Overall, how would you assess the legislative record of Congress over this past year?,’ a daunting 83 percent of the experts gave Congress a D or F, worse than the 76 percent who gave D or F grades in 2017.
On the question, ‘Does Congress protect its powers from presidential encroachment?’ 69 percent of the experts gave a grade of D of F for 2018; that’s worse than the 61 percent who gave the most-poor grades in 2017.
The House was judged particularly harshly on three questions: whether members in the minority are allowed to play a role (72 percent D or F); on keeping excessive partisanship in check (86 percent D or F); and on following a legislative process with the proper level of compromise (76 percent D or F).
“We live in a time of persistent polarization and declining trust: in politicians, in institutions, in one another,” said Lee Hamilton, who served 34 years in the House and is now a distinguished scholar at Indiana University and a senior advisor to the Center on Representative Government.“Members of Congress should lead the way in returning our democracy to its traditional approach of coalition-building across diverse groups of people,” said Hamilton.
“We must reject partisan hostility, and be willing to work across the aisle. Everyone should be included in the public dialogue and treated respectfully,” said Michael M. Sample, IU vice president for public affairs and government relations and director of the Center on Representative Government.This year marks the 13th annual Experts’ Survey on Congress conducted by the Center on Representative Government. Data on Congress’s performance in 2018 were collected online in January and February 2019; the survey elicited the opinions of a select group of 29 top academic experts on Congress from around the country.