Only 15 percent of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing. Just 17 percent approve of how Republicans are controlling Congress. Democrats fared no better when they were in charge. Congress seems unable to address most of the national problems we face, from immigration to job creation, the budget deficit, the debt, tax reform and infrastructure repair, to name a few. Not surprisingly, 68 percent support a national referendum on any issue if enough voters request it, taking the control of key questions out of the hands of Congress altogether.
In short, Americans think members of Congress are out of touch. But perhaps Congressional failures result from being too responsive. As a nation, we may suffer from too much, not too little, democracy.
Those who framed the Constitution were afraid such a Congress, one that was too reflective of popular wishes. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts said at the Constitutional Convention that "the evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy" and that the people "are the dupes of pretended patriots." James Madison argued that it was essential to appoint men to rule by "successive filtrations," meaning that we were more likely to get enlightened statesmen when the people did not pick them directly. The desire to put distance between popular passions and national policymaking explains the Convention's decision to allow direct election only to the House of Representatives. Senators would be chosen by state legislatures.
The Framers did not think people were bad. "[T]he people do not want virtue," Gerry said, meaning that he trusted their character. Rather, they knew that the "factious spirit" (self-interest that ignores the needs of the broader community) was, as Madison put it, "sown in the nature of man." Popular passions were thus likely to mislead. So they created a "representative" government, not the direct democracy urged by today's supporters of national referenda. As Madison said of the Senate, whose members were given long terms to help isolate them from popular passions: "[T]he use of the Senate is to consist in its proceeding with more coolness, with more system, & with more wisdom, than the popular branch."
Since 1913 (the 17th Amendment), senators are also elected directly by the people, but the question the Framers posed is still there: can Congress adequately represent national interests and strengthen the national union if it is buffeted too much by popular passions?
Whatever we might charge them with, members of Congress today are not distant from the people. Their deliberations and sessions are available 24/7 via C-SPAN. Their views are subject to constant reporting and analysis by the media and interest groups. They are besieged by well-funded lobbyists and very accessible to wealthy donors. Members typically travel within their states/districts three to four days a week -- more when Congress is not in session. Their office staffs are geared to learning about and responding to constituent interests. Their re-election connections with voters begin the day after an election and continue unabated until the next one. Indeed, elections ratify their ability to be in touch. Nearly 90 percent of House and 80 percent of Senate seats are "safe." The average margin of victory for members of the House in 2014 was 35.8 percent, and for the Senate, 22.6 percent.
Thus, while the public disapproves of Congress, it generally approves overwhelmingly of how its own legislators are in touch with them. Clearly, there is something wrong: popular legislators cannot address national needs and Congress falls into disrepute, all while being more responsive than ever to public passions.
Might it be too responsive? Does our system err too much on the side of reflecting the public mood? Is there too little room for statesmanship, for deliberation on the needs of what Madison called the "aggregate interests of the community"? Are members of Congress merely mouthpieces for the passionate views of constituents, choosing to follow rather than lead? Does being a "representative" mean never deviating from popular sentiments, even where wisdom and the national interest argue for telling constituents they are wrong? Is the compromise essential for addressing national needs harder the more "democratic" we become?
Congress, aided by modern travel, telecommunications, and technology, is in closer contact with the feelings of voters than was possible or conceivable before. That is a good thing. But good things can produce unintended consequences. We have gained in increasing the public's access, but perhaps at the price in Congressional efficacy. Good national government -- and regaining the public trust -- require correcting this imbalance.
What we need are modern answers to the age-old questions that challenge representative government. How can we select legislators who have character and wisdom? How can we enable them to represent the views of all of their constituents, not just the (typically hyper-partisan) majority who elected them? How can we enable them to spend more time learning about issues and building bridges with other legislators -- and less time raising money and campaigning? How can we create incentives for compromise in addressing national issues?
Our inability to address such questions has produced a surplus of democracy yet anger at the ability of Congress to lead. We consistently feel that the nation is on the wrong track, beset by festering problems. George Washington worried about this in his Farewell Address. "The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual," he said in worrying about the spirit of party, "and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty."