As to why Americans lack trust in government, countless examples could be cited of incompetence, malice, or dishonesty on the part of government officials. See, e.g., Running an effective government is tough work, 10/6/14 (armed intruder gets inside the White House, hue and cry about the Redskins name, hyperbole about global warming, initial reaction to the Ebola epidemic); and Lawfare is a growing danger, 10/27/14 (political influence of trial lawyers, 40-agent raid on a water bottling plant, Bundy Ranch showdown over grazing rights that nearly ended in a bloodbath, draconian enforcement of regulatory requirements against disfavored businesses, lax follow-up on government misconduct).
Without getting into personalities, the misconduct clearly goes all the way to the top. Consider (a) the dishonest sales pitch for healthcare “reform” (The website is fixable, but GovCare has deeper problems, 11/4/13), (b) the attorney general’s apparent lack of interest in getting to the bottom of a gun walking operation being conducted by the DOJ (The imperial presidency returns, 6/25/12), and (c) the absurd explanation that was floated for the Benghazi attack (A sobering review of recent developments, 3/18/13).
Key congressional investigations have been stonewalled by the administration (late and/or incomplete responses to document requests, evasive testimony of departmental officials, etc.). Private litigants have had better luck obtaining information than congressional committees in some cases. Federal court orders DOJ to release Fast and Furious information [to Judicial Watch], dailycaller.com, 7/31/14.
And at a lower level, unprecedented resistance to inquiries by departmental inspector generals has been reported. What is he hiding? Inspectors general say Obama administration obstructs justice, Hans von Spakovsky, dailysignal.com, 10/12/14.
Finally, some members of Congress have seemingly tried to deflect or undercut the investigative efforts of committees on which they serve. See, e.g., this videoed interview (6:16) of Catherine Engelbrecht, True the Vote, by Megyn Kelly, Fox News, 4/10/14.
As for what to do about the erosion of trust in government, it has been suggested (president’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2016, p. 69) that inefficiency and poor customer service are the problems that need solving. A recurring theme in the president’s budget, 2/16/15.
. . . despite this progress, public trust in government remains low and there is more work to be done. The Administration is ramping up its efforts to restore this trust through investments that modernize and improve how the Government serves citizens, and through initiatives that maximize the impact of taxpayer dollars.
A far more promising approach, we think, would be to stop the kind of behavior that has engendered loss of trust. To that end, the members of Congress should work together to curb administrative abuses such as were involved in the foregoing examples. The alternative is for Congress to continue its institutional decline, in due course being reduced to an essentially ceremonial role.
3. Polarization – The current occupant of the White House is on track to be the most polarizing president in recent US history based on the gap between his disapproval and approval ratings. This does not mean he is unpopular with his own party; it is basically a function of his being exceptionally unpopular with the other side.
Gallup’s data from President Reagan to the present are shown in the table below. Note that the president identified as the least polarizing, Bush 41, failed to win reelection. Obama approval ratings still historically polarized, Jeffrey Jones, gallup.com, 2/6/15.
There is just so much that Congress can do to affect this measure of polarization, which is basically a function of the president’s desire (or lack thereof) to work with members of the other party. Thus, the current president had ample opportunity to extend an olive branch to Republicans after the mid-term elections, and so far he has done just the opposite. See, e.g., State of the Union address missed the mark, 1/26/15.
Our suggestion for Republican members is that they should not only be willing to take conservative positions but also stop caving as soon as opposition materializes. While reasonable minds could differ as to whether it was a good strategy to seek to defund implementation of “executive amnesty” directives by the Department of Homeland Security, for example, the hasty retreat from this position that is now in progress – without so much as a Senate debate on the House bill – is leaving the majority party looking rather pathetic. Did the House GOP cut a deal with Democrats? Susan Ferrechio, Washington Examiner, 2/27/15.
So what could the Senate Republicans have done if they were serious about this matter? One possibility was suggested in last week’s entry, namely “go nuclear” and abolish the filibuster, which the minority is using to block conservative legislation. This is not an action to be taken lightly, but one could certainly make a case for it – and if the Republicans don’t act now, the Democrats probably will do so the next time they are in power. Something’s got to give in the US Senate, 2/23/15.
Another possibility would have been to invoke the reconciliation process, which provides a way of breaking a filibuster of budget bills (such as the DHS funding bill). What’s motivating Republicans? Rush Limbaugh Show transcript, 2/25/15.
CALLER: One point real quickly. I am wondering why Mitch McConnell has not implemented the same option that Harry Reid did in order to get the healthcare bill passed. They call it nuclear option, which I understood at the time that the Republicans were so upset because they were only to use that option when it concerned a budget item, and certainly the Homeland Security budget is a budget item, so I don't get why he isn't. *** RUSH: I haven't the slightest idea. I can only guess. And my guess would be *** that they are so worried about not screwing up 2016, the presidential race, that they are trying to avoid any action they think would be provocative, would upset the Democrats, would upset the media. They're trying to lay low just like they did during the campaign last year.
Our suggestion for Democratic members is that they should avoid slavish support for the president, which threatens to ensure continuing gridlock in DC until a new president is sworn in – with no assurance of improvement after that. It would be delusional to expect the president to voluntarily become more accommodating than he is inclined to be, or to expect the Republican majority to embrace the president’s policy agenda in place of their own ideas.
If the president wants to veto Republican-backed bills after they have been debated, amended, and passed by Congress, then at least the American people will know who is responsible and can react as they see fit.
4. Congressional approval rating – According to Rasmussen, 16% of Americans recently credited Congress with “good or excellent” performance while 52% said it was doing a poor job. And this was the highest rating for Congress since 2010! Among the unfavorable perceptions: elections are rigged and the votes of members of Congress are for sale. Poll: Approval of Congress rises slightly, still very low, James Arkin, realclearpolitics.com, 2/20/15.
Gallup tracks congressional approval as a subset of trust in government. Not only does their polling generate low ratings for Congress, but it also indicates (see data below) that Congress is less trusted than the other branches of government. Trust in government, September 2014.
Individual members may feel they are outperforming the congressional average. If not, why would they keep getting elected? But this could just show the voters don’t trust their opponents, rather than that they themselves are held in high regard.
How could trust in Congress be enhanced? Perhaps the members should work on the points that have already been suggested. Here’s a brief recap:
•Goals/results – Rethink their support (not universally but on average) for ever bigger, more intrusive government, and exercise their power to reverse it. Balance the budget by cutting spending, not by raising taxes and thereby encouraging more spending.
•Trust – Work together to provide better government oversight; stop tolerating executive branch stonewalling of legitimate inquiries about unlawful or abusive activities.
•Polarization – Amend the Senate rules so as to abolish the filibuster while ensuring an adequate opportunity to debate and offer amendments to proposed legislation.
I’ve been advocating a solution to DC gridlock for months, but haven’t mentioned it to you. TERM LIMITS. Recently have seen a mention or two in the press. We don’t need the Congress to do that. Negatives??? - SAFE member (DE)
Term limits could do a lot of good, but they would require constitutional amendment(s) – which could probably not be pushed through without an Article V constitutional convention. See the third section, Reforming Congress, of our 2009 survey on the political system.
Should conservatives push for an Article V constitution despite the risk that progressives and the media might manage to co-opt the process? See SAFE’s review of Mark Levin’s book on the subject: The liberty amendments, 3/31/14.