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Congress vs. public opinion

Gallup released an interesting poll on immigration reform yesterday, which opponents of immigration reform probably didn't like. The pollster reported:A
Congress vs. public opinion
Congress vs. public opinion

Gallup released an interesting poll on immigration reform yesterday, which opponents of immigration reform probably didn't like. The pollster reported:

A majority of Americans would vote for each of six different policy changes that Congress is considering as part of a comprehensive immigration reform bill. Support ranges from a high of 87% for a multifaceted pathway to citizenship that includes a long waiting period, taxes and a penalty, background checks, and learning English, to a low of 53% for a law that would vary the number of immigrants the U.S. lets into the country, depending on economic conditions.

The single most popular provision -- a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants -- is the one thing congressional Republicans say they oppose most. Indeed, some, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), have characterized this element as the one thing Democrats need to give up on in order to get a deal done, as if the citizenship provision were some superfluous add-on, instead of the point of the endeavor.

But seeing the lopsided results -- 87% of Americans don't agree on much, but they support the pathway to citizenship -- got me thinking about the larger dynamic of Congress ignoring public opinion.

In theory, this isn't supposed to happen. Indeed, political scientists have spent years explaining how, in democracies, the policymaking process should generally reflect the attitudes of the electorate's mainstream -- Americans have policy preferences, they elect like-minded candidates to pursue those preferences, and there's an expectation that those preferences will manifest themselves in legislative outcomes.

Politicians have an incentive to generally honor, or at least consider, the will of the electorate, fearing a public backlash if they consistently go the other way. And as a consequence, most of the time, we would expect to see most U.S. legislators making a concerted effort to do what Americans want them to do.

But all of this seems to have broken down quite a bit lately.

Immigration certainly offers a timely example -- 87% of Americans support a pathway to citizenship, but most Republicans reject the idea anyway, and don't much care what the voting mainstream prefers.

But this seems to come up quite a bit, doesn't it? During the fight over reducing gun violence, more than 90% of Americans supported expanding background checks on firearm purchases, and wanted Congress to support a bipartisan plan to do just that. Republicans killed it anyway.

During the budget fight, most Americans supported a balanced deficit-reduction plan that included tax increases on the wealthy, but Republicans didn't care. When President Obama unveiled the American Jobs Act, most Americans backed its provisions, but Republicans didn't care. Americans like the idea of the Buffett Rule, ending tax subsidies to oil companies, and leaving Medicare intact, but for congressional Republicans, it just doesn't much matter.

Now, I should note that the public is sometimes wrong, and Americans' attitudes are occasionally contradictory, so there's no credible expectation that policymakers will always put aside their own judgment to do what's popular.

That said, it amazes me to see the extent to which congressional Republicans have come to believe the polls are simply irrelevant. When there's pending legislation, and they're confronted with public-opinion surveys showing 9 out of 10 Americans backing a specific course of action, GOP lawmakers have no qualms about simply ignoring those wishes.

Is it any wonder the party is deeply unpopular?

As for why Republicans ignore the polls with impunity, there are competing schools of thought, but I'm inclined to believe it has a lot to do with the way in which the literal electoral lines are drawn -- GOP lawmakers are confident that attitudes in their red states and districts don't reflect national trends, so they couldn't care less what Americans in generally believe, so long as the folks who turn out for them on Election Day think the way they do.