Inside Story

Politicians versus voters

The US Congress has a deep problem with governing — though voters also reserve the right to contradict themselves

Lesley Russell 23 May 2024 1598 words

Off the spectrum: hardline Republicans Marjorie Taylor Greene (centre) and Thomas Massie (behind her) campaigning against their own party’s speaker, Mike Johnson, whom they deride as a “uniparty speaker,” on 1 May. Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

Election day this November will determine so much more than who will be the next president of the United States. All 435 seats in the House of Representatives and thirty-three of the one hundred Senate seats will be on the ballots. The outcome of those votes will determine which party has the majority in each chamber of the Congress. And that will have a huge impact on the newly elected president’s ability to implement his agenda.

The shape of the post-election Congress has another consequence, too: it will affect whether party leaders have the ability — or even desire — to engage in the work of government and fully representing the needs and concerns of their constituents.

The current Congress, the 118th, perfectly illustrates how elected officials are failing in this task. Derided as a do-nothing Congress with elements of high-school soap opera (the fight between House Republicans Marjorie Taylor Greene and Jasmine Crockett being the latest example) it is set to be one of the least functional ever, with only thirty-four bills passed over the past twelve months. That’s the lowest number in the first year of a congressional session in nearly a century. By comparison, the 113th and 114th Congresses, during Barack Obama’s second term, passed 196 and 329 bills respectively, and the 117th Congress, during Joe Biden’s first term, passed 362.

The narrow Republican majority in the House of Representatives is at the mercy of the irascible hardline conservatives of the House Freedom Caucus, who are happy to undermine any Speaker who is willing to work with the Democrats. Congress has consequently lurched from one stop-gap government-funding bill to another, with continuing threats of government shutdowns and disrupted services and social security payments.

“I’ve seen irresponsibility in the Congress any number of times in the past, but I’ve never seen anything like this,” says long-time congressional observer Norman Ornstein, a research fellow with the American Enterprise Institute.

Small wonder then that trust in the federal government hovers at a near-historic low and the public’s opinion of Congress has never been less positive. An April Gallup poll had just 16 per cent of respondents approving of how Congress is doing its job; it echoed a November 2023 Pew Research Center poll in which exactly the same percentage expressed trust in the government to do what is right always or most of the time. A January Gallup poll found that only 24 per cent of respondents considered most incumbent congressional representatives deserving of re-election.

What is striking is that these negative attitudes towards Congress coexist with voters’ continued belief that government should take a substantial role in many areas of their lives. On this question, the traditional split —Republicans wanting smaller government providing fewer services, Democrats looking to bigger government and more services — doesn’t hold up on closer examination.

Polling last year by State Policy Network shows that most voters, including a majority of Democrats, believe the federal government has too much control over their day-to-day lives. Yet the vast majority take a positive view of Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, the Affordable Care Act and other big government programs. While six-in-ten Americans say the government spends too much, majorities also say that more should be spent on education, infrastructure, assistance to the poor, border security, childcare assistance and drug rehabilitation.

Some self-interest is at play here. Among forty-five- to sixty-four-year-olds, for example — many of whom are nearing the age at which they can begin collecting government retirement benefits — 72 per cent think the government should increase benefits.

What does all this mean for voter turnout and decision-making in November?

First (and shockingly), it’s unclear how much attention the average American voter is paying to the political issues of the day. Over the past decade only around 30 per cent of survey respondents have said they pay close attention to national political news. Those that do are more likely to be older and better educated: only 9 per cent of eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-olds are following politics very closely. Independents, an important voting group in what promises to be a tight election, are generally not as aware of political issues as those aligned with a political party and report lower interest in politics overall.

The level of engagement does increase in the lead-up to a presidential election. But even as the antics of Trump and the MAGA Republicans are regular news in Australia, a PBS/Marist poll taken at the beginning of May found that 55 per cent of Americans were not following the Trump hush-money trial much or at all.

A Gallup poll in March showed that the six issues of most concern to Americans as the election looms are inflation, crime and violence, hunger and homelessness, the availability and affordability of healthcare, federal spending and budget deficits. Other issues — abortion, , for example, or gun rights, civil rights and climate change — attract less national concern though more passion.

Do Americans know where the political candidates on their ballot stand on these issues? That’s not an easy question to answer.

A 2020 study shows that about 60 per cent of voters can identify which party their current member of Congress represents and about 70 per cent know the party of their senators. Roughly the same percentages know which party has the majority in the House of Representatives and the Senate. Party manifestos rarely figure in individual campaigns, and unlike under the Westminster system, members of Congress are not required to vote the party line.

Overall, 66 per cent of adults say it is extremely or very important that candidates share their views on political issues. But the quality and depth of reporting in the American media means they must rely on sparse issue-specific information to evaluate them.

That sparsity makes personal traits more important. While just 39 per cent of Americans say these traits — living in a community like theirs, sharing their religious values, coming from a similar economic background, sharing their racial or ethnic background, sharing their gender — are extremely or very important, there are some key exceptions. People with lower incomes, Black Americans and white evangelical Protestants particularly value shared characteristics.

Importantly, these surveys fuel a sense that elected officials aren’t in touch with the people they represent and don’t advocate for the issues that matter to their constituents. Survey data from the Pew Research Center show that only about four-in-ten voters of both parties say members of Congress care about the people they represent all or most of time (compared to roughly half in 2018) and three-quarters say that members of Congress do a somewhat bad or very bad job of listening to the concerns of people in their district.

When asked by Pew in an open-ended question to identify the biggest problem with elected officials today, respondents point to a variety of issues, ranging from a lack of focus on the people they represent to negative character traits, general incompetence, and the role of partisanship in their ability to get things done. Majorities of both Republicans and Democrats think most politicians run for reasons of self-interest rather than public interest.

On several issues the gaps between politicians and voters are wide and widening. Abortion is a classic example. Some 76 per cent of moderate Republicans say abortion should be legal, as coincidentally do 76 per cent of conservative and moderate Democrats. (The figure for liberal Democrats and Democratic-leaners is 96 per cent.) Yet in March the Republican Study Committee, which represents all of the House Republican leadership and nearly 80 per cent of Republican House members, endorsed a national abortion ban with zero exceptions for rape or incest.

An analysis from 2020 shows that lawmakers voted against majority opinion in their district on one in every three high-profile roll calls in the House of Representatives. (With the growing power of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus, it’s safe to assume that figure holds or is more skewed today.) As I have written previously, there is now almost no policy overlap between the two major parties despite the considerable agreement among voters even on hot-button issues like abortion and guns.

There’s one other complication. Voters’ views and preferences are often overridden by their sense of political identity: they (and presumably politicians too) will alter their policy preferences to match their partisan identities.

In general, a high degree of divergence between the political parties means less ticket-splitting, whereby a voters chooses a presidential candidate from one party and congressional representatives from the other. That trend will be heightened this year, with Republicans almost completely wedded to Trump, although a very recent set of polls sees Democratic senatorial candidates leading in four battleground states where Biden trails Trump. This suggests Black, Hispanic and younger voters may be looking to ensure their issues are taken up in the Congress, if not in the White House.

The biggest danger in November is that Americans, increasingly pessimistic about their democracy, may not turn out to vote at all. According to a survey from FiveThirtyEight, more than a quarter of voters who failed to vote in the 2020 election said they did so because nothing would change if they did. It’s hard to see how those who are disillusioned with the Trump–Biden contest will still turn out to vote for their legislative representatives (which is possible on US election ballots).

Many current predictions see a triple flip of the White House (to Trump), the Senate (to Republicans), and the House of Representatives (to Democrats) — a reverse of the current power configuration. That would make coherent legislative action and adherence to democratic norms even more difficult than it has been in recent years. •