Poll Calls Upon Congress to do “the people’s work”

Published in the Pawtucket Times, January 10, 2014

Four months ago, public anger reached a boiling point when the Republican-led House, controlled by its minority faction of Tea Party members, and the Democratic majority in the Senate failed to agree to an appropriations continuing resolution.
As a result of this budget impasse, a 16 day federal shutdown forced the furlough of 800,000 federal employees and another 1.3 million were required to report to work without known payment dates.

Public polls at that time blamed the GOP for turning its back on the nation by putting partisan politics first rather than doing the People’s business.” The popularity of Congress sank to a new historic low with heated partisan conflict echoing throughout the hallways of Congress.

Hammering Out an 11th Hour Deal

Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) with the blessings of conservative groups, including the Heritage Action, the Club for Growth, Freedom Works, and the Senate Conservatives Fund, forcefully pushed House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to offer continuing resolutions not acceptable to President Obama and Congressional Democrats to politically force a delay or to defund the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (called “Obamacare”). Strong GOP opposition, spearheaded by Tea Party lawmakers, to raising the nation’s debt ceiling almost forced the government to run out of money to pay its bills.

After weeks of intense political bickering, Congress finally hammered out a political compromise, one that would open the doors of government, but also raise the debt ceiling to keep the nation from free-falling off the fiscal cliff. A failure to raise the debt ceiling could have resulted in the nation’s credit rating being downgraded. If this occurred, average Americans might have seen higher interest rates for mortgages, car loans, student loans and even credit cards. Higher business expenses, due to expensive borrowing rates, might have forced businesses to stop hiring or even to lay off employees. Housing prices might have drop and retail sales slow. The 11th hour compromise kept the American tax payer and business community from taking a huge hit in their pocketbook.

Although Cruz and Tea Party lawmakers in both chambers viewed shutting down the federal government and not raising the debt ceiling as a way to put excess government spending on the chopping block economy, there was economic damage. According to the economists at Standard & Poors, the total cost of the political gridlock to the nation’s economy that occurred before Christmas was estimated to be $24 billion.
Americans Lack Confidence in Congress

With the new Congressional session beginning this month, a new national poll released last week by AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs reveals that few Americans have faith in the current political status with Congress receiving low marks on its performance of upholding the views of most Americans while only 9 percent say it is doing a good job.

According to the poll that comes months after the first government shutdown in 17 years, 70 percent lack confidence in the federal government’s ability “to make progress on important issues facing the nation in 2014.”

However, the poll findings indicate that the respondents have a little bit more faith in their local and state governments, with 45 percent saying that they are at least moderately confident in their state government and 54 percent having at least moderate confidence with elected officials at the local level.

The federal government receives low marks on its performance. For instance, 55 percent believe the government is doing a poor job of representing the views of most Americans while only 9 percent say it’s doing a good job.

Meanwhile, the poll’s results find Americans are more pessimistic than optimistic on matters such as the nation’s ability to produce strong leaders, America’s role as a global leader, and the opportunity to achieve the American dream.

The People’s preferred agenda for the government in 2014 includes a diverse set of policy issues that range from economic problems to social policies to foreign affairs, notes the poll. Health care reform tops their list of priorities, mentioned by 52 percent of respondents as one of the top ten problems, followed by unemployment (42 percent), the economy in general (39 percent), and the federal deficit (31 percent).

“While it is very easy to ask people to choose a single ‘most important problem’ and to build a list for the answers, the reality is that government has to address many issues at the same time,” said Trevor Tompson, director of the AP-NORC Center. “This survey, with data about the public’s priorities on a range of policy issues, provides policy makers with rigorous data as they seek to understand the public’s outlook on where the country is now and what the action agenda should be for the year ahead.”

Wendy Schiller, Associate Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at Brown University, notes that the AP-NORC poll reveals “broader concerns expressed in national opinion polls, and by the average Rhode Islander “that our country seems to be slipping on lots of levels.”

Schiller, a frequent guest on Rhode Island PBS’s “A Lively Experiment,” notes that aging baby boomers and seniors worry about issues facing the younger generations, personal debt resulting from student loans to national debt. On the other hand, “Younger folks worry about how they will take care of their parents and grandparents, as well as providing for their own retirement,” she says.

“In a state like Rhode Island, which has such a strong family centered culture, these issues weigh heavily on almost everyone’s minds,” observes Schiller.

One of the poll’s positive findings was that the respondents did not cite healthcare for seniors as a pressing issue even though they did express concern over Social Security and health care reform, adds Schiller. “Preserving Medicare is as important, if not more, to the physical and financial well-being of seniors, so I found it striking that it was not as large a concern [as other issues].”

The polls negative findings of a distrust of government, rather than just a disappointment, concerns Schiller, noting that “Democracies do not fare well when the people lose faith in their government.”

As indicated by the poll, Schiller believes that Rhode Island state elected officials are viewed more positively by voters than those serving in Congress. But, 2014 will be a challenging year for them, especially with issues like the 38 Studios debacle, pension reform issues, and Rhode Island job growth. Schiller believes that “If the General Assembly can increase the trend towards greater transparency and accountability, than they might be able to reverse the downward slide of public faith in government.”

As noted in the poll, “public opinion about Congress is at an all-time low,” says Darrell M. West, Ph.D., Vice President and Director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. “People are disenchanted with the hyper-partisanship in Washington, D.C., and the inability of congressional leaders to address major policy problems, he says, noting that the government shutdown was very disturbing to mainstream and people now worry about Congress getting anything done.

West, a former Brown University professor and a prominent Rhode Island political commentator, does not see a major resurgence of bipartisanship in this Congress.
“The parties have incentives to highlight their differences rather than compromise their principles. That will make it difficult for the parties to work together, he says.

But West sees an indicator that the GOP might move away from its ties to the Tea Party that put a damper on reaching across the aisle to get the people’s work done. “The only promising sign is Speaker Boehner’s declaration of independence from the right-wing. A month ago, Boehner criticized outside conservative groups and said they had lost all credibility. If he really believes that, it may embolden him to work on immigration reform and pass needed legislation”, says West.

Because of the complexity of today’s domestic and foreign policy, the People want and need their elected officials to quit this partisan bickering and join together to solve the enormous problems that face the nation, warns well-know Rhode Island activist, Susan Sweet, a keen watcher of state, national, and global politics. “Without the political will to stand together and strengthen the People of America, this great experiment in democracy could decline and fall,” she says.

The AP-NORC national poll was conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research from Dec. 12-16, 2013, with 1,141 adults. Additional information about how the survey was conducted, including the survey report and the survey’s complete topline findings can be found on the AP-NORC Center’s website at http://www.apnorc.org.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

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