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Congress' Harshest Critics Identify a Crisis of Influence

Story Highlights

  • 56% of critics strongly agree Congress too beholden to financial contributors
  • Also agree strongly that Congress pays too much attention to lobbyists
  • Most frequent general complaint about Congress: partisan gridlock

PRINCETON, N.J. -- Congress' harshest critics -- the 53% of Americans who rate the job Congress is doing as poor or bad -- feel more strongly about the undue influence that donors and lobbyists have on Congress than they do about any other major criticism of the institution. More than half of this group strongly agrees that members of Congress pay too much attention to what their contributors want them to do (56%) and what special interests and lobbyists want them to do (55%). Nearly half (46%) strongly agree that members of Congress should be willing to compromise more.

Americans' Specific Complaints About U.S. Congress
By rating of how Congress is doing its job
Rate Congress' Job Poor or Bad (53%) Rate Congress' Job Excellent, Good or Fair (45%)
% %
Pay too much attention to financial contributors 56 23
Pay too much attention to special interests and lobbyists 55 23
Should be willing to compromise more 46 31
Spend too much time campaigning and raising money 43 19
Pay too much attention to party leaders 32 18
Congress not getting lots of important work accomplished 39 7
Congress has not worked hard to address issues you care most deeply about 37 8
Mainly out to gain personal glory and success 30 15
Mainly out to get rich 25 14
Are not honest 27 8
Congress has passed legislation you strongly object to 25 11
Do not care a lot about what their constituents want them to do 21 5
American public would be better off if Congress did less 14 8
Are not smart enough for their job 14 3
Based on agreement with negative statements or disagreement with positive statements about Congress
Gallup

By contrast, 4% of those most critical of Congress say its members care a lot about what their own constituents want them to do; 21% strongly disagree with this statement.

These results are part of a special Gallup analysis of the reasons behind Americans' extraordinarily low regard for Congress. Just 13% of Americans rate the job Congress is doing as excellent or good, and Congress' job approval is at 16%.

In a June 1-5 survey, Gallup asked Americans to react to a series of 14 positive and negative statements about Congress that encompass the major concerns that previous Gallup research shows most bothers Americans about the institution. The responses among Americans who are most critical of Congress, as well as those whose views of Congress are either positive or neutral, are shown in the accompanying table. As would be expected, those who rate the job Congress is doing as poor or bad are much more likely than others to judge Congress negatively across the 14 dimensions.

The views of the majority of Americans who say Congress is doing a poor or bad job may be particularly helpful in revealing the institution's core image problem. Additionally, those who are most critical of Congress are also the most knowledgeable about Congress, according to their answers to several factual questions about how Congress operates, underscoring the value of understanding what this group thinks.

The only two statements that a majority of those most critical of Congress strongly agree with are that Congress pays too much attention to financial contributors and too much attention to lobbyists and special interests. The related concern that members of Congress spend too much time raising money also ranks highly, with 43% strongly agreeing.

Notably, despite the 46% strongly agreeing that Congress should be willing to compromise more, only 32% of those most critical of Congress strongly agree that members pay too much attention to what their party leaders want them to do. Americans most critical of Congress thus apparently see partisanship, at least as it plays out in party leaders telling members what to do, taking a backseat to the influence of special interests in creating gridlock in Washington.

Americans who view Congress as doing an excellent, good or fair job are not nearly as likely to strongly agree with critical statements about Congress, but a substantial percentage still agree, even if not strongly. Among this group, lack of congressional compromise ranks first on the "strongly agree" list, with others falling behind. The complete results for this and other groups are reported at the end of this article.

Congressional Inaction Leads Top-of-Mind Concerns

A somewhat different perspective on Congress' image problem emerges from Americans' answers to an open-ended question about why they rate Congress the way they do. Almost half of Americans who say Congress is doing a poor or bad job cite congressional inaction or gridlock as the top reason for their view. This is consistent with the reasons Americans have traditionally given when asked open-ended questions about their views of Congress.

Relatively few in this group of critics spontaneously think of outside influences on Congress, such as lobbyists or financial contributors, even though these concerns spark relatively high levels of agreement when they are asked about specifically.

Thus, lack of compromise emerges as a leading concern about Congress in both the agree/disagree measure of what's wrong with Congress and the open-ended format. What is different about the results of the two approaches is that few Americans who are critical of Congress mention special interests or lobbyists in response to the open-ended question. This seeming disparity may indicate that Americans distinguish between what they believe Congress is doing wrong and the factors behind that failure. The open-ended questions reveal that Congress' lack of action on the nation's problems is the ultimate problem. At the same time, Americans' responses to the agree/disagree statements apparently tap into an underlying belief that special interests and big donors are thwarting the nation's business more generally.

Reason Given for Rating of Congress
What are some of the reasons you think the U.S. Congress is doing a/an [excellent/good/fair/poor/bad] job?
Rate Congress Poor/Bad Rate Congress Excellent/Good Total
% % %
Party gridlock/obstruction 27 10 20
Needs to accomplish what they promised/address the issues/take action 22 18 20
Represent party more than the people 9 5 7
Too much personal interest 9 2 6
Republicans opposing President Obama 7 5 6
Not doing a good job (nonspecific) 4 2 3
Corruption 3 0 2
Spending too much money/increasing the deficit 3 1 2
Lobbyists/special interests have too much influence on what Congress does 2 1 2
Are bipartisan/are compromising 2 3 2
Need term limits 2 1 1
Should pay better attention/be more focused 2 0 1
Should be more accountable 2 0 1
Lying 1 0 1
Doing a good job (nonspecific) 0 18 9
Some action being taken, need to take more 0 8 4
Other 2 2 2
No opinion 3 24 12
Gallup

Bottom Line

The explanations for Americans' low ratings of Congress as a whole appear to coalesce into two broad categories. First is Americans' belief that Congress is not accomplishing enough and suffers from gridlock. Second, and related to the first, is their belief that Congress is under the control of outside influences, including those with money and lobbyists, and is less interested in the interests of their constituents. These are also the primary factors explaining the particularly negative view of Congress' harshest critics.

Congress' failure to act on immigration reform in 2007 or pass a federal budget within the required time frame in 2013 are two of the more spectacular historical examples of legislative intransigence undermining public confidence in the institution. The inability of Congress to take action on gun control this week, despite much evidence that the public supports increases in background checks and restrictions on the sale of assault weapons, is a recent illustration of the public's chief complaints.

Gallup Senior Scientist Michael W. Traugott, Ph.D., contributed to this article.

Survey Methods

Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted June 1-5, 2016, with a random sample of 1,027 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. For results based on the total sample of national adults, the margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. All reported margins of sampling error include computed design effects for weighting.

Each sample of national adults includes a minimum quota of 60% cellphone respondents and 40% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by time zone within region. Landline and cellular telephone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods.

View complete question responses and trends.

Learn more about how the Gallup Poll Social Series works.

Americans' Reaction to Positive and Negative Assessments of Congress
Based on those who say Congress doing a poor or bad job
Strongly agree Agree Neither Disagree Strongly disagree
% % % % %
Pay too much attention to financial contributors 56 38 2 3 1
Pay too much attention to special interests and lobbyists 55 37 2 4 2
Should be willing to compromise more 46 41 3 7 2
Spend too much time campaigning and raising money 43 42 7 7 0
Congress getting lots of important work accomplished 1 3 4 51 39
Congress has worked hard to address issues you care most about 1 6 4 52 36
Pay too much attention to party leaders 32 52 6 8 2
Mainly out to gain personal glory and success 30 46 10 13 1
Are honest 1 7 13 51 27
Mainly out to get rich 25 40 13 19 1
Congress has passed legislation you strongly object to 25 41 13 14 4
Care a lot about what their constituents want them to do 4 23 10 41 21
American public would be better off if Congress did less 14 28 10 35 13
Smart enough for their job 3 35 14 32 14
June 1-5, 2016

Americans' Reaction to Positive and Negative Assessments of Congress
Based on those who say Congress doing an excellent/good/fair job
Strongly agree Agree Neither Disagree Strongly disagree
% % % % %
Should be willing to compromise more 31 56 5 6 2
Pay too much attention to special interests and lobbyists 23 52 9 13 2
Pay too much attention to financial contributors 23 55 8 11 2
Spend too much time campaigning and raising money 19 44 11 23 1
Pay too much attention to party leaders 18 56 11 12 2
Mainly out to gain personal glory and success 15 42 16 26 1
Mainly out to get rich 14 34 18 32 2
Congress has passed legislation you strongly object to 11 40 17 26 4
American public would be better off if Congress did less 8 31 15 36 8
Smart enough for their job 8 49 20 19 3
Care a lot about what their constituents want them to do 10 42 15 27 5
Congress getting lots of important work accomplished 4 28 18 42 7
Are honest 4 27 22 37 8
Congress has worked hard to address issues you care most about 4 28 17 43 8
June 1-5, 2016

Gallup


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