As we move deeper into December, the question for Congress is this: Can members of the House and Senate do something to make the public feel more positive about Congress's competence, or will 2012 end on the familiar note of Americans taking an unrelievedly dim view of Congress's job performance?
According to data from a public opinion survey sponsored by the Center on Congress at Indiana University, "there's a quite decided, lopsided disapproval of Congress," said Edward G. Carmines, professor of political science at Indiana University in Bloomington. "In our survey, it was 91 percent who disapprove and only 9 percent who approve.
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"This is an old story about the modern Congress, but it's one that bears repeating," said Carmines. "In almost all areas, the electorate finds the Congress quite wanting. We asked them if they think Congress deals with key issues facing the country; if it keeps excessive partisanship in check; if it conducts the business of the country in a careful and deliberate way; if it holds members to high standards of ethical conduct; if it controls the influence of special interests.
"In each of these areas, the public rates Congress quite low. We asked them to grade Congress between A and F, and in almost every one of these instances, the grade is in the D range."
When the survey was conducted earlier this fall, public awareness was just beginning to build about the "fiscal cliff" now filling the headlines. "We didn't ask specifically about the 'fiscal cliff,' but we did ask how much compromise should be in play. And very strong majorities told us they prefer Congress to compromise to make good public policy, even in contrast to sticking to their own principles.
"If Congress were able to deal with something like the fiscal cliff in a way that showed compromise, the institution would certainly be held in higher esteem than it is now," Carmines said. "There's not much in the survey data showing that the public believes Congress can do that," he concedes. "But if Congress could compromise, they certainly would gain public support, because that's what the public's looking for."
Carmines said the public does understand that Congress "has a tough job." Those surveyed recognize "there's a wide diversity of opinion on most issues that come before Congress. But they don't think Congress works hard enough to resolve these differences."
The 2012 findings are based on a nationwide survey of 1000 people completed in September and October by the Internet polling firm YouGov Polimetrix.
Carmines offers his thoughts on other findings:
Influence: "The survey asked, 'What do you think is the main thing that influences what your members of Congress do in office?' The highest, 49 percent, said 'special interests.' Thirty-six percent said members are mainly influenced by their personal self-interest. Far below that, 9 percent said 'the interest of the people in their state or district,' and 5 percent 'the interest of the country as a whole.' To the question, "Do members of Congress care about what people like you think?" one percent said 'most of the time' and 31 percent said 'sometimes.' A whopping 67 percent said, 'No, not very often.'"
Communication: "There's a growing recognition of the importance of social media. People believe it's important now for members of Congress to develop a good website, to use online questions and surveys, to participate in Facebook and Twitter, to have regular email contact with their constituents. It's not that they downplay the traditional -- town hall meetings, and mailings and so forth -- but added to this is what they see as an obligation now that members of Congress be highly involved in social media and other online outreach."
• Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University,