By Sara Orton
“You lot are a bunch of effing liars… you all are corrupt and confused and you’re all liars and cheats!”
This was the beginning of my workday last Thursday morning. Thank you, kind sir from Wisconsin!
With Congress enjoying only a 16 percent approval rating, this man is not alone in his distaste for the institution. As an intern for my Congressman, I have come to experience personally that many constituents take to the phones to express their frustration.
Constituent outreach to members of Congress has an effect on the policy decisions of these members. Personalized phone calls, specifically, have been found to impact representatives in their decisions to support or oppose policies 72 percent of the time.
But constituents also call and write letters to share their opinions about valid issues important to them. These opinions are logged and passed along to the legislative staffers, and to the members of Congress.
Congressmen — constantly worried about reelection — have incentives to listen to their constituents’ opinions. However, the work of political scientists Warren Miller and Donald Stokes shows that it’s the Congressman’s perception of his or her constituents’ views that influences his or her voting behavior. This doesn’t always match up to reality, because few voters know their Congressman’s specific stance on most issues and many constituents never express their views to their representatives.
So Congressmen listen to their callers; but do those callers represent all constituents?
The American public is more ideologically divided now than it has been in the past two decades. And the divide goes beyond dislike — 36 percent of Republicans view Democrats as a threat to the nation’s well-being, and 27 percent of Democrats view Republicans as a threat to the nation’s well-being. Many Americans hold more moderate political views, but these are the Americans who are less politically engaged, and thus less likely to directly contact their representatives or senators.
Because they hear from frustrated, more politically engaged constituents often, Congressmen are likely to distance themselves from the cause of that frustration.
In the case of the recent IRS scandal, during which the IRS has been under investigation for targeting conservative campaign groups and non-profits for tax audits, Republican representatives have capitalized on an opportunity to publicly attack the IRS, and in doing so, please their conservative constituents.
Beyond the normal anti-IRS sentiment (which more than half of Americans hold), some Americans are infuriated by this lack of government transparency. What has angered some Americans, mostly more conservative Americans, most is that an IRS employee, Lois Lerner, apparently responsible for this controversy, lost all of her emails from 2009 to 2011 because of a hard drive failure.
So when IRS Commissioner John Koskinen sat before both the Ways and Means Committee and the Government Oversight Committee, he was not exactly welcomed with open arms to the Capitol.
For instance, Paul Ryan yelled, “I don’t believe you,” after Koskinen gave his testimony.
Representative Peter Roskam, R-Ill., lectured Koskinen, saying, “I don’t mean to be condescending — it’s going to sound condescending — but you made a bad choice,” in reference to his decision to become IRS commissioner. Apparently Roskam was told that beginning a sentence with “I don’t mean to be condescending” cancels out all of the condescension that follows.
While attacking the IRS commissioner may appeal to constituents who are anti-IRS and anti-government regulations, it only served to further polarization within the House and within the Senate by fostering intense personal disagreements between members of the committee.
Angry rhetoric, finger-pointing and blame will not solve polarization in the Capital, nor will it solve America’s crisis of political gridlock. In order for members of Congress to effectively represent their constituents, it is important that constituents other than members of the far right and far left share their opinions.
Contact Sara Orton at firstname.lastname@example.org.