The Free Press, Mankato, MN


April 13, 2011

Our View: Congress disliked for a reason

— It becomes plainly evident, when an institution like the U.S. Congress is held in such low regard — at the same time so much of America is ignorant of basic congressional facts — that something is embarrassingly wrong. Congress is not only widely disrespected (no surprise there). To a lot of Americans, it’s also irrelevant.

Two independent analyses of Congress — how it misbehaves, and how much the public actually knows about it — reveal much of what is askew.

A Harvard University professor has analyzed the way Congress conducts its business and has found that members spend about 27 percent of their time taunting each other. That’s more than one-fourth of their attention devoted, not to deliberation, not to working toward common ground, but simply to calling each other names.

In an unrelated study, conducted by the Pew Research Center, the public’s current events knowledge was put to the test. While 73 percent of America knows that Hillary Clinton serves as U.S. secretary of state and 71 percent know Moammar Gadhafi is the leader of Libya, only 38 percent know that Republicans hold the House majority (immediately after the 2010 midterm elections, only 46 percent were aware of the new Republican majority). Despite high-profile negotiations that took place last week to fend off a government shutdown, where House Speaker John Boehner played a major role, only 43 percent know he occupies the speakership. Nineteen percent still believe Nancy Pelosi has the job.

Americans under 30, generally, know less of the workings of government than their elders. Yet, no demographic group has much to brag about.

People love to complain about Congress, regardless of how much they know about it. The dismissive attitude on how Congress works (or doesn’t work) has not changed with recent elections. Whether controlled by Democrats or Republicans, the details don’t seem to matter. Congress turns Americans off.

Which brings us back to the study conducted by Harvard professor Gary King, an expert in using computers to discover patterns in large amounts of data. Now, added to the “three ways” legislators typically draw attention to themselves — by claiming credit, by taking positions and by advertising — should be a fourth: taunting.

Of course, no one should be surprised to hear that congressmen like to insult the other side. We see it every day. But perhaps we’re seeing more of it, which inspires us to dislike Congress even more.

This is not how we should like to see Congress. It has been rightly called the nation’s most persuasive and most important deliberative body.

Deliberative body?

More like a schoolyard playground. There is obviously far too little deliberation going on, and more than enough name-calling. No wonder so many Americans have decided it’s not worth their attention.

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