Americans Dubious Congress Can Curb Corruption

by Lydia Saad

But less than half think it's a very serious problem

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- Since the lobbying scandals surrounding Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff emerged last year, the Republican and Democratic caucuses have been jockeying for the higher moral ground and promoting their separate anti-corruption bills. However, critics are calling the Republican-sponsored ethics reform bill that narrowly passed the House last week a "sham," a "snow job," and "worse than window dressing." Their objection is that the bill does not go far enough in limiting the influence lobbyists can have through the gift-giving process, or in strengthening the revolving door by which former legislators recast themselves as lobbyists within a year after leaving office.

A recent USA Today/Gallup poll suggests that the political fallout for Republicans from such criticism may be limited, given Americans' fairly low concern about the corruption issue and their low expectations for reform.

Relatively few Americans -- just 39% -- consider government corruption to be a very serious problem today. Another 44% call it somewhat serious, while 17% say it is either not too or not at all serious. Because the focus of the recent corruption scandals has centered on former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and other Republicans linked with Abramoff, it may be predictable that Republicans largely downplay the seriousness of the problem; only 23% call it "very serious." But even among Democrats, less than half (46%) rate the issue this seriously.

Americans certainly don't object to Congress making ethics reform a priority. Although only 15% of Americans say dealing with corruption should be the top priority for Congress this year, nearly two-thirds (64%) say it should at least be a high priority.

Democrats are only slightly more likely than Republicans to think it should be a top or high priority: 69% of Democrats versus 62% of Republicans.

However, when it comes to a solution, Americans are pessimistic. Americans are slightly more optimistic that Congress can self-enforce high ethical standards among its members than they are that Congress will pass meaningful legislation to curb corruption. Overall, 41% of Americans have a great deal or a fair amount of confidence in Congress to make sure its members adhere to high ethical standards; only 32% are similarly confident that Congress will pass meaningful legislation.

When looking at these results according to respondents' party identification, it is clear that the different level of optimism about the two solutions is largely due to Republicans' differing reactions to the proposals. Republicans are much more optimistic than Democrats about self-enforcement (55% of Republicans have confident this can happen versus 37% of Democrats). However, Republicans are nearly as skeptical as Democrats (36% vs. 31%) when it comes to Congress' ability to pass meaningful anti-corruption legislation.

Ban It or Just Disclose It?

A central point of debate is whether an ethics reform bill should severely restrict the amount of money lobbyists can spend wining, dining, and escorting members of Congress around the globe, or whether these expenditures and outright gifts should continue to be allowed as long as they are fully disclosed.

The recent poll finds Americans divided on whether a ban on such spending is needed or if full disclosure is sufficient (52% favor a ban, 47% favor full disclosure).

Gallup finds little difference between Republicans and Democrats in responses to this question. But sharp differences are seen by age, with young adults generally advocating full disclosure and older Americans widely favoring a ban.

The Same Old-Same Old?

In 1997, the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill was first introduced in Congress, partly in reaction to 1996 fundraising controversies involving the Clinton White House. Gallup polling at the time showed Americans were generally subdued about the whole issue, similar to their reaction to government corruption today.

  • In 1997, less than half of Americans rated campaign finance reform as a top or high priority for government, and the issue placed last out of 12 issues rated.
  • Also, similar to the low level today saying that corruption is very serious, relatively small percentages in 1997 felt that the campaign finance system needed a "complete overhaul."
  • Perhaps most telling, a majority Americans in 1997 (63%) felt the charges against the Clinton administration for misusing the White House to raise campaign money were typical of the way both parties have behaved.
  • Already in 1997, Americans were widely skeptical about whether new laws restricting money in campaigns would change the situation in American politics. Only 36% said new laws could succeed in reducing the power of special interests; 59% said "no matter what new laws are passed, special interests will always find a way to maintain their power in Washington."

Common Cause President Chellie Pingree recently chastised the Republican House members for not advocating stronger lobbying reforms saying, "Clearly, Congress thinks the public is not paying attention. Yet we know that the vast majority of Americans believe that business as usual between lobbyists and Members of Congress must change, and that the corruption of public officials is an important issue."

Pingree may have it right on the first count. Congress may be counting on public inattention to this issue. Yet it's unclear that her assertion that Americans are paying attention, or really care, is any more accurate today than it was in 1997.

Survey Methods

These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,011 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted April 28-30, 2006. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points. 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.

21. [Thinking now about the issue of corruption in government,] Do you think corruption in Congress is -- a very serious problem, somewhat serious, not too serious, or not a serious problem at all?

BASED ON 501 NATIONAL ADULTS IN FORM A



Very
serious



Somewhat
serious



Not too
serious

Not a serious
problem
at all



No
opinion

2006 Apr 28-30

39%

44

15

2

1

22. Do you think the issue of corruption in Congress should be -- the top priority for Congress to deal with, a high priority, but not the top priority, an important priority, but not a high priority, or should it not be an important priority?

BASED ON 510 NATIONAL ADULTS IN FORM B


Top
priority


High
priority

Important,
not
high priority

Not an
important
priority


No
opinion

2006 Apr 28-30

15%

49

31

4

2

23. How much confidence do you have in Congress to make sure that its members adhere to high ethical standards -- a great deal, a fair amount, not much, or none at all?

BASED ON 501 NATIONAL ADULTS IN FORM A

Great
deal

Fair
amount

Not
much

None at
all

No
opinion

2006 Apr 28-30

6%

35

42

17

*

24. How much confidence do you have in Congress to pass meaningful legislation to deal with the issue of corruption in Congress -- a great deal, a fair amount, not much, or none at all?

BASED ON 510 NATIONAL ADULTS IN FORM B

Great
deal

Fair
amount

Not
much

None at
all

No
opinion

2006 Apr 28-30

4%

28

44

24

*

25. As you may know, some members of Congress travel on fact-finding missions paid for by corporations, trade groups, or other private interests. Some members of Congress also receive meals or gifts from these organizations. In your view, what should Congress do to make sure that such favors do not lead to corruption in government -- [ROTATED: institute a ban on members receiving any gifts, meals or travel from private interests, (or should it) allow members to receive gifts, meals or travel, but require full public disclosure of these]?

Institute
a ban

Require full
public disclosure

No
opinion

2006 Apr 28-30

52%

47

1

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