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Two in Three Doubt Congress’ Grasp of Healthcare Issues

Two in Three Doubt Congress’ Grasp of Healthcare Issues

PRINCETON, NJ -- Americans view themselves as more knowledgeable than members of Congress regarding the current debate over healthcare reform. Nearly half (48%) say they personally have a good understanding of the issues involved, while only 27% say so about members of Congress.


These Gallup findings are based on interviewing conducted Sunday, July 26, as the push toward new healthcare reform legislation continues to dominate the focus of Congress, the White House, and the national news media.

That less than 3 in 10 Americans believe that Congress has a good understanding of the issues involved in the healthcare debate underscores the basic lack of confidence that Americans have in the men and women they elect and send off to Washington to represent them. Gallup's recent update on confidence in institutions, for example, found that 17% of Americans have a great deal/quite a lot of confidence in Congress, near the bottom of the list of institutions tested.

The current data show that Americans are certainly not overly confident in their own understanding of healthcare reform. But the public's personal level of confidence -- 48% say they have a good understanding of healthcare reform -- is substantially higher than the 27% who say members of Congress understand.

The American public can be split into four groups on the basis of their responses to these two questions.


It would be optimal in a democracy if the people of the country believed that they and their elected representatives in Congress had a good understanding of something as important as a major overhaul of the nation's healthcare system. But only about one in six Americans fit that description, leaving the vast majority of the public with doubts about the level of understanding of either themselves or Congress.

Indeed, the largest two groups of Americans are those who believe that Congress doesn't have a good understanding, but they personally do, and those pessimists (or realists) who simply say that healthcare reform is understood well by neither themselves nor Congress. The remaining group of 11% says that Congress understands but that they personally do not.

There are significant patterns of differences in response to these questions by partisan orientation:

  • Republicans are above average in the belief that they personally understand the issues involved in healthcare reform, but below average in their belief that Congress understands. Given that the big push on healthcare reform is from a Democratic president, and that Congress is controlled by the Democrats, these findings are not surprising.
  • Democrats are at about the average level in terms of believing that they personally understand, but slightly above average in their belief that Congress understands. Again, this is fitting given the Democratic control of Congress.
  • Independents don't differ much from average in terms of their own beliefs that they understand healthcare reform, but are slightly below average in thinking that Congress has a good understanding.



Americans have quite negative attitudes about Congress in general, making it less than surprising to find that the significant majority of the public believes that Congress does not have a good grasp on the issues involved in the current debate over healthcare reform. It is possible that if Gallup were to ask this "good understanding" question about any type of pending congressional legislation, we would find the same level of distrust that representatives fully understand the issues involved. Americans are certainly more confident in their own personal level of understanding of healthcare reform, but even with that, half don't believe that they personally have a good grasp of what's involved.

The overall finding that 16% of Americans believe that they and members of Congress have a good grasp of the issues in the healthcare reform debate could suggest that Americans would resist the idea of rushing healthcare legislation into law posthaste. Indeed, separate Gallup result from July 23 showed that less than half of Americans want healthcare reform legislation to be passed this year. The majority say Congress should pass healthcare reform legislation, but not necessarily this year, or should not pass a new healthcare reform law at all.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 526 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted July 26, 2009. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones (for respondents with a landline telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell phone only).

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

Polls conducted entirely in one day, such as this one, are subject to additional error or bias not found in polls conducted over several days.

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