C-minus for Congress looks like grade inflation

Congress recently received an overall grade of C-minus from 40 top academic experts who make it a habit to study that legislative body.

In the old days a C was considered average, so a C-minus would be slightly below average. And “slightly below average” is simply too high a grade for the poor-to-failing effort of the Congress in 2011.

The grade came from a survey conducted by the Center on Congress at Indiana University. Lee Hamilton, the former 34-year member of Congress from southern Indiana and director of the IU center, spoke for a lot of people when he suggested the grade was too high.

“I think they were generous in their grading,” Hamilton told a reporter. “The standing of Congress is as low as it’s ever been, and there are good reasons for that.”

Intractable partisan behavior is one of those reasons. The House received an F and the Senate a D on a question about “keeping excessive partisanship in check.” Bad grades on other questions showed the experts don’t believe there is a proper level of consensus-seeking and compromise, or productive discussion, or good process in conducting business, or appropriate consideration of long-term implications of policy issues.

Comments by Ted Carmines, an IU political scientist who was lead author on the survey, also suggested he thought the overall grade was too high with this blunt criticism of Congress:

“Congress came close this year to total failure in its main functions of making laws and being a governing branch,” he said. “That view wasn’t shared by all the experts, but, overall, the grades are quite low. This was a severe assessment of Congress.”

The grade inflation came in part because the experts gave Congress good grades on “making its workings and activities open to the public” and “making a good effort to be accessible to their constituents.” In other words, they were good at showing people how inept they were and in meeting with people to try to explain themselves.

Hamilton, a true statesman during his three-plus decades in Congress, urged the public not to give up on trying to elect good people to serve. Deciding “they’re all the same” would give in to the most partisan activists.

“That’s really the worst reaction, because it increases the power of those who have brought us to this gridlock and stalemate,” he said.

It may sound naive or like wishful thinking, but it would be far better for voters to become more educated about governance and politics. Be skeptical about ads and statements that demonize the other side. Be proactive in finding out how candidates feel about issues of importance to you. Try to determine how often the candidates have worked with people in the other party versus just following the party line. Ask them what they’ve done to bring truth and honesty to their campaign.

The partisanship and gridlock will continue if voters reward those who have thrown the most mud and those who choose party loyalty over independent thinking. If it does, that C-minus grade will surely continue to fall, as will the quality of public service coming out of Washington.

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