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Thursday, January 6, 2011

Is Congress Listening to the American People?

Elected representatives are clearly talking more and more these days about listening to the American people.

This is particularly true for the new Speaker of the House, John Boehner. As Politico put it in their Wednesday morning edition: “John Boehner will take the Speaker’s gavel with a commitment to restoring the House as an institution focused on listening to the American people.” The Washington Post reported that Boehner told reporters outside his apartment on Wednesday morning: "The sun is out, and the American people are in charge." And it’s not just Boehner. President Obama also stated after the November elections that it was time to listen more to the American people.

Exactly how our representatives are going to set about doing a better job of listening to the people is not entirely clear at this point. No politician, to my knowledge, has gone the extra mile and said that he or she has a commitment to focusing on survey data measuring what the American people want their representatives to do. No representatives, to my knowledge, have publicly referenced the hiring of pollsters to review, synthesize, and analyze poll data on the priorities and positions of the American people.

Presumably elected representatives have more qualitative methods in mind as they attempt to "listen to the American people" -- the usual reading of constituent mail, going "back to the district" and having town hall meetings, and talking to people back home. None of this is systematic or scientific, of course. And without science or systems the interpretation of what the American people want their Congress to do can be open to differences in interpretation.

We have an example of this in front of us at the moment. New House Speaker Boehner has moved quickly to schedule a vote on repealing the controversial new healthcare reform law which took effect last March. The new bill -- officially cited as ‘‘Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act’’ -- was introduced in the House Rules Committee and will be voted on next week.

Boehner and others have argued that this action is listening to the will of the American people. As Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah put it: "House Republicans are listening to the American people and are rightly moving forward to dismantle a law that is a threat to liberty itself." House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was quoted as saying Thursday morning on CBS' The Early Show that "most Americans don't like the health care bill and know there's a better way."

It is true that the American public’s views of healthcare reform legislation have tilted more negative than positive, as I reviewed here. The two latest polls on the healthcare law that I am aware of show a 54% to 43% opposition (CNN/Opinion Research, based on this question wording: "As you may know, a bill that makes major changes to the country's health care system became law earlier this year. Based on what you have read or heard about that legislation, do you generally favor or generally oppose it?") and a 42% favorable and 41% unfavorable view of the law (Kaiser Family Foundation poll in December using this question wording "As you may know, a new health reform bill was signed into law earlier this year. Given what you know about the new health reform law, do you have a generally favorable or generally unfavorable opinion of it?").

We will have a read Friday on a specific question asking about repealing the bill. Previous research has used complex question wordings on the repeal issue, giving respondents a number of alternatives such as repealing part of the bill, repealing all of the bill, and so forth. Our Gallup question is more straightforward and mimics what's in front of the House now; i.e., a straight up or down on a bill that would repeal the entire healthcare act.

No matter what these results show, however, I think it's fair to say that repealing the healthcare reform legislation is not Americans' top priority for Congress. Nor has it been.

Dave Barry, the satirical humorist, picked up on this point in his annual month-by-month analysis of the news events of the past year. Barry reviews the political scene of January 2010 thusly:

Every poll shows that the major concerns of the American people are federal spending, the exploding deficit, and -- above all -- jobs. Jobs, jobs, jobs: This is what the public is worried about. In a word, the big issue is: jobs. So the Obama administration, displaying the keen awareness that has become its trademark, decides to focus like a laser on: health-care reform. The centerpiece of this effort is a historic bill that will either a) guarantee everybody excellent free health care, or b) permit federal bureaucrats to club old people to death. Nobody knows which, because nobody has read the bill, which in printed form has the same mass as a UPS truck.

Point well taken. Healthcare reform was not the top priority for the American public when it was enacted last year, and its repeal is most likely not the top priority for Americans, as far as we can see, at this point.

The "Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act" bill has virtually no chance of becoming law, given a Democratic Senate and a Democrat in the White House. So the bill is widely regarded as a symbolic effort on the part of the Republicans.

How the public views this largely symbolic effort, however, is unknown. It's possible that it may do little to increase the general public’s average esteem for Congress. The Republicans have obviously taken heed of the fact that Americans are most concerned about the economy and jobs (and perhaps have read Dave Berry's analysis) and have thus attempted to argue that the healthcare bill repeal effort is in fact related to jobs and the economy (note again the title of the repeal bill). But it is not clear if the public will see it that way. Some may view it as a partisan effort in symbolism rather than a real attempt to attack problems.

Keep in mind that the 112th Congress begins with less than overwhelming approbation from the American public. The public’s approval of the job Congress is doing was at 13% in December, the lowest in Gallup polling history. Americans’ confidence in Congress as an institution is at 11%. That, too, is the lowest in Gallup polling history.


Jeremia S. said...
January 11, 2011 at 6:12 AM  


Thank you very much for writing this editorial. I am deeply impressed by your analysis of the current conversation gap between "Congress" and the "American People". It is fair to say that I am both interested in whether or not they will "listen" to "us" but how exactly they intend to go about doing so. While an army may be said to march on it's stomach, it is also true to think that an elected official marches on it's pollsters.

I want to applaud your piece primarily because of it's readability and ample use of diverse sources (from Boehner to Barry). This is something I find lacking in many articles ranging from the hyperlocal publications of my home state (Alaska) to MSNBC and the Huffington Post.

Your analysis immediately reminded me of Paul Krugman's Op-ed in the NY Times "Nobody Cares About Process" (Nov. 3) in that as long as jobs are created and American's employed, no one would care exactly HOW the jobs had became available. It's the end, not the means, that generally matter to the American citizenry.

This comment is not intended as a critique nor as a discussion starter, but is merely the effort of one Gallup reader to applaud your clearly researched work and to ask that you continue to publish your analysis of domestic and world affairs.


pox911 said...
January 12, 2011 at 1:59 PM  

I'm disappointed in this article. I hoped to read a fair, balanced critique of whether or not Congress is beginning to listen to the people more. About a third of the way through the article, however, it becomes clear that the only real topic is whether or not to repeal healthcare. Why not name the article "Do Americans want a repeal of the 2010 Healthcare Bill?"
And I should point out that the polls cited in the article don't approach the topic of whether or not to repeal, but instead are about whether or not Americans favor the healthcare bill. On Monday, Rasmussen released an article stating that 54% of Americans favor repeal of the healthcare bill, while 40% oppose repeal. And the report also states that a full 62% of Americans that have discussed the plan with a doctor favor repeal.

Clearly, if Congress wants to listen to the majority of American citizens, they will repeal the bill.

Mother of Many said...
July 26, 2011 at 10:30 AM  

What if the American people did the one thing that Congress and all elected officials may listen to and that is boycott voting entirely. I am a proud American and understand the importance of voting, but we keep voting and they keep ignoring the plight of millions of Americans. I can't think of any other way to get their attention. If anyone has a better solution, would love to hear it, but the "politics" of this nation has gotten completely out of control. We vote at every election after listening to all the promises and once again, we end up seeing no real change. Seriously, how many years do you have to talk about an important issue before anyone actually puts some action behind all those promises.

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