The American Public’s Perceptions of and Prescriptions for Congressional Decision-Making Processes

The American public’s view of the U.S. Congress is at an all-time low: for many months now, about 8 in 10 Americans have expressed disapproval.


A new research study by scholars at Stanford University and University of California at Santa Barbara, in collaboration with The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, provides a fascinating answer to this question.

The team tested three possible explanations:

  • Output disapproval
  • Volume disapproval
  • Process disapproval

Output disapproval is disapproval of the laws that have been passed by the Congress.  Volume disapproval is disapproval of the number of laws passed.  Both of these types of disapproval explain some of the public current unhappiness with Congress.

headerBut in addition, this unhappiness is importantly a result of process disapproval: disappointment with the considerations that elected representatives take into account when they decide how to vote on pieces of legislation.

When making a voting decision, a member of Congress might consider many different factors, including the preferences of his or her constituents, the preferences of his or her political party’s leadership, what the president wants him or her to do, what his or her campaign donors want him or her to do, and many more. 

Americans’ perceptions of this decision-making process were studied in national surveys conducted in 2015 (during the Obama presidency) and 2017 (during the Trump presidency).

When voting on a bill, Americans want their elected officials to pay substantial attention to the preferences of the general public and the preferences of people who feel strongly about the issue (called the issue public).

But Americans perceive that representatives instead pay the most attention to the preferences of their supporters, of their campaign donors, and of economic elites.

Remarkably, people’s perceptions about how government is making decisions and people’s preferences about how they want government to make decisions were nearly identical during the Obama and Trump administrations.  And despite deep disagreements between Republicans and Democrats on many issues, these two groups of people agree with one another strikingly when it comes to how they think representatives are and should be making voting decisions.

These perceptions of how legislators make decisions are consequential. The more citizens see discrepancies how they want members of Congress to make decisions and how members do make decisions, the less likely they are to approve of Congress, and the less likely they are to give high marks to recent U.S. government performance more generally.

A survey experiment yielded results supporting this conclusion, showing that members of Congress can enhance public approval of their work by explaining that their decisions reflect the preferences of the general public.

Taken together, these findings suggest that Congress may be able to rebuild public trust by making voting decisions in the ways Americans want and by devoting considerable effort to clearly and frequently communicating their decision-making criteria to the public.

Click here to see a paper and here to see the supplement describing the methods and additional findings of this project.

Photo of Capitol Hill was provided by Theresa Jackson.