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CAN CONGRESS EVER BE POPULAR?. Elizabeth Theiss -Morse University of Nebraska-Lincoln Congress in the Classroom July 27, 2010. NO!. Why is Congress so unpopular right now?. Only 20 percent of Americans approve of the way Congress is handling its job 74 percent disapprove!.

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can congress ever be popular


Elizabeth Theiss-Morse

University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Congress in the Classroom

July 27, 2010

why is congress so unpopular right now
Why is Congress so unpopular right now?
  • Only 20 percent of Americans approve of the way Congress is handling its job
  • 74 percent disapprove!
why is congress so unpopular right now4
Why is Congress so unpopular right now?

When asked to give a one-word impression of Congress, this is what the Pew Research Center heard:

Pew Research Center survey, March 2010

why is congress so unpopular right now5
Why is Congress so unpopular right now?
  • So what is the answer to this question?
when has congress been popular in the past
When has Congress been popular in the past?
  • If there are times when Congress has been especially popular or especially unpopular, maybe we can get some clues
how does congress popularity compare to the other branches
How does Congress’ popularity compare to the other branches?
  • Even if Congress is more popular at certain times than at others, it might be that Congress is always the least popular branch
so what makes congress especially unpopular
So what makes Congress especially unpopular?
  • Members of Congress often run for Congress by running against it
  • Media coverage of Congress tends to be especially negative compared to the other branches
  • Everything Congress does is very public (unlike the presidency or the judiciary)
  • There are lots of members of Congress, a small handful do jerky things, and these transgressions get generalized to the whole of Congress
so what makes congress especially unpopular11
So what makes Congress especially unpopular?
  • My focus: Democratic processes and DEMOCRACY itself
democratic processes and congress
Democratic Processes and Congress
  • What kind of institution did the Framers intend when they created Congress?
    • “People’s branch” – open to many competing interests
    • Deliberative body – set up to discuss and debate issues
    • Need for compromise – institutionally forced to reach compromises
democratic processes and congress13
Democratic Processes and Congress
  • So what kind of institution did the Framers create?
    • An institution that was slow and inefficient, encumbered with arcane rules, never likely to ram through a particular interest, and open to lots and lots of competing interests
    • In other words, an institution that could not be too big or too powerful or too able to infringe on individuals and their rights
    • They created Congress!
the people s branch
The “People’s Branch”
  • Madison’s Federalist #10 – let

interests be fruitful and multiply

  • In a large, modern-day,


democracy, given our

Constitution, this means

having lots of interest groups

the people s branch15
The “People’s Branch”

But Americans seriously dislike interest groups

  • In a 1992 survey,
    • 86 percent of respondents said Congress is too heavily influenced by interest groups when making decisions
    • 78 percent said Congress is too far removed from ordinary people
  • In a 2010 survey,
    • 87 percent of respondents said officials in Washington are too heavily influenced by special interests
    • 81 percent said they are out of touch with average people
the people s branch16
The “People’s Branch”
  • Focus group participants in 1997 said,
    • Mike:If the government keeps their nose out, our country would gravitate towards a certain opinion. I mean, 80 percent of the population wants this, but the government does that.
    • Lisa: That’s because we’ve created an occupation of professional lobbyists where those people are paid by groups to sway the government from what the people really want. We need to eliminate that occupation as a whole. That needs to not be acceptable in our society.
the people s branch17
The “People’s Branch”
  • Problems:
    • 80 percent of Americans don’t agree on most issues
      • Immigration
      • The budget deficit
      • Health care
      • Abortion
    • And even if they agree on the ends (lower crime rates, good education), they disagree on the means
the people s branch18
The “People’s Branch”
  • Problems (continued):
    • Almost three-fourths (70 percent) of Americans are members of an interest group
      • 40 percent are members of at least two interest groups
    • If we hate interest groups, we have to admit that the enemy is us
deliberation and compromise
Deliberation and Compromise
  • The whole structure of Congress is designed to generate debate and compromise
    • Many of the rules on the House and Senate floors
    • Committees and subcommittees
    • Conference committees
deliberation and compromise20
Deliberation and Compromise
  • But Americans dislike debate and compromise
  • In a 1998 survey,
    • 86 percent of respondents said elected officials should stop talking and just take action
    • 60 percent said compromise in politics is really just selling out on one’s principles
deliberation and compromise21
Deliberation and Compromise
  • With increased partisan gerrymandering and greater partisan polarization in Congress, members of Congress themselves are (publicly) less willing to debate and compromise
deliberation and compromise22
Deliberation and Compromise

Great party polarization in recent years

(McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal)

deliberation and compromise23
Deliberation and Compromise

And greater party unity scores (McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal)

deliberation and compromise24
Deliberation and Compromise
  • With more polarization and more party unity, we are seeing fewer and fewer members of Congress willing to reach across the aisle
  • Debate and deliberation become yelling matches
  • Compromise becomes more rare
what can be done
What can be done?
  • Two proposals:
    • Teach barbarics rather than civics
    • Teach students to appreciate the difficulty of dealing with competing interests in a democratic society
teaching barbarics
Teaching barbarics
  • Tendency to focus on concepts, history, and the constitutional structure
  • This approach misses the nitty-gritty stuff of politics, including giving students a deep understanding of why debate and compromise are necessary (and good)
  • Research shows that more education leads to more factual knowledge and more civic engagement but not to a better appreciation for democratic processes
teaching barbarics30
Teaching barbarics
  • Need to desanitize the curriculum
    • People will come into conflict over their political interests – it is inevitable
    • Democratic processes are supposed to resolve these conflicts peacefully and constructively
    • These processes, though, lead necessarily to messiness, inefficiency, and often a lack of action (or at least a slow response)
    • This is all necessary in a highly diverse democracy like the United States
competing interests
Competing interests
  • Teaching about democratic processes is especially necessary if we accept that there are many legitimate and competing interests in our society
    • We don’t overwhelmingly agree on the important issues of the day
    • Interest groups are not necessarily the bad guys, and whether they are or are not, they are here to stay
competing interests32
Competing interests
  • One way to teach about interests is to give students an opportunity to see for themselves that there isn’t much consensus on major issues
    • Pew Research Center for the People and the Press (
    • (
competing interests33
Competing interests
  • Another approach is to have students experience dealing with conflicting interests themselves
    • I use a pollution simulation that focuses on competing interests and the difficulty of coming to a decision given these interests
competing interests simulation
Competing interests simulation
  • The simulation takes place in the fictitious town of Glenbrook, Wisconsin
    • Wilson Lumber and Paper Company
    • Joplin Fish Company
    • The Ad Hoc Committee on Air and Water Pollution Control (CAWP)
    • Plus several other interests you’d expect to find in a town: bank, Chamber of Commerce, the local newspaper, an interest group to lower taxes, and summer residents
competing interests simulation35
Competing interests simulation
  • The problem: Increased water and air pollution caused by the paper production process
    • Chemicals dumped in the water
    • Air pollutants emitted by Wilson’s smokestacks
  • What can be done?
competing interests simulation36
Competing interests simulation
  • Students play different roles
    • Interests in the town (with each interest having different levels of power and resources )
    • Seven students assigned to the Glenbrook City Council (one holds an at large seat and six represent each of six districts)
objective of the simulation
Objective of the simulation
  • The City Council needs to figure out whether and how to deal with the pollution problem
  • If they decide they want to do something about the pollution problem, then a policy proposal (or proposals) must be introduced by a Council member to the City Council
rules of the simulation
Rules of the simulation
  • Council members can offer a new proposal or amendments to an existing proposal (with input from interests they represent)
  • A majority vote is needed to pass a piece of legislation
what effect does the simulation have on students
What effect does the simulation have on students?
  • Students who play the role of an interest
    • come to accept the legitimacy of the different interests, even if they want their own interest to win
    • quickly learn the importance of coalition building
    • empathize with the City Council, understanding what a tough job the Council members had
what effect does the simulation have on students40
What effect does the simulation have on students?
  • Students who were the Council members
    • struggle with any discrepancy between their district’s interests and their own beliefs about what would be best
    • are grateful for information from the interests and come to depend on them for policy ideas and analyses
    • always want to do what is best for Glenbrook, but quickly realize there was no consensus on what that is
what effect does the simulation have on students41
What effect does the simulation have on students?
  • In the discussion following the simulation, we addressed direct versus indirect democracy
  • We also talked about taking what we learned from this very local problem and set of interests and moving it to the U.S. Congress
    • What are the similarities?
    • What are the differences?
can students be taught to appreciate democratic process
Can students be taught to appreciate democratic process?
  • The simulation led students to
    • a greater appreciation for the role interests and interest groups play in our political system
    • a greater understanding of the need for debate – great ideas were generated in the debates over policy proposals
    • a greater appreciation for the art of compromise
concluding comments
Concluding comments
  • I said earlier that the answer to the question “Can Congress ever be popular?” is “NO”
  • I remain pessimistic
    • Americans don’t appreciate democratic processes, but increasingly the same can be said about members of Congress themselves
concluding comments44
Concluding comments
  • Is there hope nonetheless?
    • Congress will change
    • Students are often eager to learn about what is really going on, about the nitty-gritty of politics
    • Organizations such as the Dirksen Center are amazing
    • Teachers who want students to understand Congress (and the rest of government)