Economy

Honesty and Ethics Poll Finds Congress’ Image Tarnished

by Lydia Saad

For first time, majority of Americans say its members have low ethics

PRINCETON, NJ -- For the first time in Gallup's annual Honesty and Ethics of Professions poll, a majority of Americans -- 55% -- say the honesty and ethical standards of "members of Congress" are low or very low -- slightly worse than "senators," whose ethics are rated low by 49%. By contrast, 83% of Americans say nurses have either very high or high ethical standards, positioning them at the top of Gallup's 2009 ranking of various professions.

Honesty and Ethics: Five Most Highly Rated Professions, 2009 Honesty and Ethics: Five Least Well-Rated Professions, 2009

The percentage of Americans now believing that members of Congress have low ethics is up from 46% in 2008 and 45% in 2007, and has more than doubled since the start of the decade -- rising from 21% in November 2000 to 55% today.

"The deterioration in Congress' ethics rating over the past year has occurred about equally among all three party groups."

A similar pattern occurred in the early 1990s, spanning a series of scandals starting with the "Keating Five" and the related savings and loan crisis, the House banking scandal, and the House post office scandal that resulted in the conviction of Rep. Dan Rostenkowski in 1996. However the percentage "low"/"very low" rating during that period topped out at 46% in 1995, lower than today's figure. For most of the past two decades, more Americans have typically said the ethical standards of members of Congress are low than have called them high. However, the spread between these two views is now the widest seen.

1976-2009 Trend: Honesty and Ethical Standards of Members of Congress

The deterioration in Congress' ethics rating over the past year has occurred about equally among all three party groups. The percentage rating members' honesty and ethical standards as low or very low rose by 8 points among Republicans and independents, and by 10 points among Democrats.

Honesty and Ethics of Members of Congress, 2008-2009 Trend by Party ID

Pharmacists, Doctors, Police, and Engineers Also Well Regarded

Nurses are the undisputed leader in this year's list of professions -- and have ranked No. 1 all but one year since they were added to the list in 1999 ("firefighters" was asked as a special item in November 2001, and ranked first in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks). In addition to nurses, pharmacists, medical doctors, police, and engineers are all well regarded for their honesty and ethics by more than 6 in 10 Americans. Additionally, dentists, college teachers, and members of the clergy earn high marks from at least half of Americans.

Aside from members of Congress, the only other occupational group that the majority of Americans see as having low or very low honesty and ethical standards is car salespeople. At least 40% of Americans perceive several other professions as having low integrity, including senators, stockbrokers, HMO managers, insurance salespeople, and lawyers. Still, it should be noted that two professions not included on the list this year -- telemarketers and lobbyists -- received even lower ratings in 2008 (60% and 64% "poor" ethics ratings, respectively) than members of Congress do today.

The full list of 22 professions included on this year's list is ranked according to the percentage of Americans rating each profession's integrity as "very high" or "high."

Honesty and Ethical Standards of 22 Professions in 2009 Poll, Rank-Ordered From Best Very High/High Score to Worst

Bottom Line

Congress has long ranked among the worst-rated professions on Gallup's annual Honesty and Ethics of Professions list. Now, it has earned the unwelcome distinction of having a majority of Americans rate its integrity as low or very low.

Americans are deeply concerned about the nation's economy, and eager to see the nation's leaders find meaningful solutions to that and other problems. But it's not clear that Congress' perceived lack of success is entirely to blame for its poor integrity ratings. While Congress has low job approval, the 26% of Americans currently approving is higher than the 19% recorded about this time last year. However, over the same period, Americans' rating of Congress' honesty and ethics, rather than showing analogous improvement, has in fact worsened, and not just among Republicans.

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Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,017 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Nov. 20-22, 2009. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

Detailed 2009 Responses for 22 Professions: Please Tell Me How You Would Rate the Honesty and Ethical Standards of People in These Different Fields

Honesty and Ethics of Professions -- November 2009 Split-Sample Results

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