Omdahl: Congress suffering from chronic citizen contempt
Serving in the U. S. Congress is one of the most important jobs in the world. The hockey coach at the University of North Dakota may make more money but he affects only one small part of the world. Congresspersons impact just about everything that happens in the United States.
Because Congress members have such power, it is important that they perform their duties with a reasonable degree of public confidence. But, according to the latest Gallup poll, they are getting a big fat "F" from the people who hired them.
The poll reported that 90 per cent of the citizenry had "little or no confidence" in Congress. In other words, this country is being run by a branch of government that is flunking so badly that it needs rehabilitation - summer school, at least.
Big business, organized labor and banks were rated more highly. The 10 per cent represents a 30 per cent drop in confidence since 1973.
We wouldn't tolerate an educational system, a military establishment, or an Internal Revenue Service that performed so poorly. Neither would Congress.
If we had employees doing as poorly as Congress, we would show them the door with dispatch. But instead of firing them, we turn around in every election and send 90 per cent of the incumbents back for another term. No kidding!
What can explain such an obvious contradiction - a discredited 10 per cent Congress that keeps getting re-elected en masse?
Many explanations have been proposed, including the advantages of incumbency, availability of campaign funds, ignorance of the electorate, lop-sided districts, name recognition and "bringing home the bacon." Disregard of public opinion could also be a factor.
Before we start making accusations, however, we need to remember that the Founding Fathers were not great fans of the public's opinion. To guard the country against excesses, they designed a government that thwarted the irrational impulses of the masses.
In Federalist No. 10, James Madison explained that we needed a representative system to "refine and enlarge the public views by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country...."
If Jimmy showed up today, he wouldn't dare brag about Congress being a body of citizens whose wisdom may discern the best for the country. With Congressional wisdom rated at 10 per cent, he would be drummed out of the Founders Hall of Fame.
The gridlock that has snarled Washington decision-making for the past couple of years has contributed its share to this dismal rating. The public doesn't want gridlock. According to the polls, it wants compromise.
But then, on the other hand, it won't accept just any compromise. For example, it will fight to the death for Medicare and Social Security while strongly supporting a balanced budget. Inconsistency in the public mind doesn't help Congress muddle its way out of the impasses.
In all fairness, we should point out that legislative bodies have always ranked low in the polls, though 10 per cent is a record. This contempt for Congress and state legislatures has manifested itself through demeaning jokes. We all know a few.
At this juncture, it appears that Congress is suffering from a more serious case than usual of citizen contempt.
What will be the consequences? If history is any indication, this low rating will not translate into political action and most of the actors producing this low rating will be back for another act. And the nation will struggle through. We made it through the Civil War, didn't we?
Lloyd Omdahl served as North Dakota’s 34th Lieutenant Governor of the state from 1987 to 1992. Previously he was a professor of political science at the University of North Dakota. He continues to write columns for newspapers across the state of North Dakota.