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Bridging the divide between Congress, constituents

By Kristi Keck, CNN
Only a third of U.S. voters think most members of Congress deserve to be re-elected, according to a recent poll.
Only a third of U.S. voters think most members of Congress deserve to be re-elected, according to a recent poll.
  • Anger with Congress is higher than it's been lately, Norman Ornstein says
  • Only a third of voters think most members of Congress deserve to be re-elected, says poll
  • Bailouts, slow economic relief have contributed to voter frustration, Ornstein says
  • Public needs to be better educated about legislative process, Quelch says

(CNN) -- Sen. Jim Bunning's decision to block a bill extending unemployment benefits was a smack in the face to struggling Americans across the country.

The Kentucky Republican demanded the extension be paid for instead of adding to the deficit, although in the past, he voted for similar extensions that did not include budget offsets.

Bunning relented, but critics still blasted him as tone-deaf, a label stapled to much of Congress over the past year.

While it's "extraordinarily rare" for Congress to be admired by the public, right now, the dissatisfaction with the legislative branch is intensified, said Norman Ornstein, a longtime congressional observer with the American Enterprise Institute.

"It's fairly clear that there's a high anger level that the public has with Congress -- higher than we've seen it in a while, and up at levels comparable to what we've had with other wave elections that have brought substantial turnover," Ornstein said.

Only a third of U.S. voters think most members of Congress deserve to be re-elected, according to a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll released last month.

That's the lowest number ever recorded for that question in a CNN survey, even lower than 1994, when anti-incumbent fever helped Republicans win back control of the House and Senate from Democrats.

Video: Talking bipartisanship
Video: Bunning backs down

The February poll also indicates that 51 percent of Americans feel their own member of Congress should be re-elected, also an all-time low.

Voters typically view their own representatives much more favorably than Congress as a whole, a gap that points to a lack of understanding and respect for the deliberative process, said John Quelch, a marketing professor at Harvard Business School.

"When you have a very polarized red- vs. blue-state nation as we do at the moment, the concept of compromise receives much more contempt than it deserves," said Quelch, who co-authored the Brown Journal of World Affairs article, "Can Brand Obama Rescue Brand America?"

All democracies are having this same problem of a skepticism toward government, Quelch said, because the process "still takes a long time to work its way through to a conclusion in an era where we are now much more attuned to instant communication and instant gratification."

Over the past year, voters have watched the play-by-play on Capitol Hill, but many have yet to experience the fruits of their labor or find economic relief.

Meanwhile, voters have seen automobile company executives go to Congress -- in private jets -- to ask for and receive public money. They've seen the government bail out banks, while financial executives rake in big bonuses.

With lousy economic times comes the "driving feeling that the average person is taking it on the chin ... while the fat cats are getting away with murder," Ornstein said.

No matter what the ramifications would have been if government action on the economy had not been taken, "The public is looking at politicians who have helped the rich and not so much the rest of us," he said.

Voters have also watched a yearlong debate on health care reform turn ugly at times with no results yet. Discussions played out behind closed doors, exacerbating voter distrust. Many voters said lawmakers spent more time making each other look bad than trying to get things done.

Retiring Rep. Brian Baird, D-Washington, said on a CNN panel with other departing lawmakers that the public plays a role in the tone of the debate, too.

"If we are calling on the Congress to be more functional, we need the public to be more functional," Baird said, pointing to the acrimony at town halls and in online forums. "It's who can say the nastiest, meanest, most obscene thing they possibly can, and not give fair due to discussions and facts."

Democratic Rep. Bart Gordon, also on the panel, cited a suggestion Ornstein made last year to change the legislative calendar so that lawmakers could be more connected to each other, their families and their constituents -- and more focused on the issues while on Capitol Hill.

Ornstein proposed in a Roll Call article that lawmakers work five-day work weeks for three weeks at a time, followed by a one-week break that would eliminate the need to dart back-and-forth between their districts and Washington.

The reality is the expectations of the public on what we can deliver and the intensity of the philosophical divide across the country is pretty severe.
--Rep. John Shadegg, R- Arizona

Republican Rep. John Shadegg of Arizona, also retiring, suggested the public's expectation of what Congress can get done might be off-base.

"The reality is the expectations of the public on what we can deliver and the intensity of the philosophical divide across the country is pretty severe. And the thought that, in this town, where those two competing visions run into each other, it is going to always be always be cheery and friendly and bipartisan, especially on the big stuff, I think is unrealistic," he said.

"You're going to have your major struggles when you look at issues like health care reform -- rewriting one-sixth of the economy -- or when you look at a public that's saying we both want lower taxes and less spending but we want more benefits out of our government," Shadegg said.

Improving the image of Congress at the institutional level is a challenge that requires educating the public on how government works, Quelch said.

"That it's not a function of lobbyists indirectly or directly buying votes, but rather a very substantial give-and-take on important policy issues that eventually results in a compromise. And the compromise never pleases anybody 100 percent," he said.

Quelch praised last week's daylong health care summit as a vehicle that enabled the public to observe their elected officials at work in a format that didn't rely upon sound bites.

The summit also allowed President Obama to show he is taking an active role in the health care debate.

"The current issue domestically is whether or not Obama has been operating too much at 30,000 feet and deliberately not getting down in the weeds," Quelch said.

"I believe that if this bill eventually passes with certain Republican ideas included, that in retrospect, Obama will receive quite a high degree of praise for coming down from the mountain top and entering the fray at about the right time to force the conclusion," he said. "He then enters the fray as the voice of moderation and the voice of reason, and the person with the energy to force the compromise and motivate a conclusion to the debate and a bill that he can sign."

And achieving an endgame for the health care effort, Quelch said, would help boost the image of Congress, too.

"The president can't succeed without Congress and Congress can't succeed without the president. The image of one depends on the image of another. It is not a zero-sum game," he said. "And therefore if there is a bill that he signs, his success will be their success and vice versa."