Congress has some of the lowest approval ratings in recent history, but it hasn’t stopped House lawmakers from disproportionately loving their jobs.
It also hasn’t stopped them from feeling fulfilled by their work or from believing they are performing a public service and contributing to the public good.
These are the findings of a study released Tuesday. Its authors from the Congressional Management Foundation and the Society for Human Resource Management say the report, “Life in Congress: The Member Perspective,” is “the first research to focus on the members’ viewpoint of their daily activities, challenges, and motivations.”
According to the report, 89 percent of House members who responded to a survey from Aug. 4 to Oct. 31, 2011, said they felt satisfaction that they were “performing an important public service.”
When asked whether they were satisfied with their understanding of how their “job contributes to society as a whole,” 90 percent answered in the affirmative. In response to the statement, “my work gives me a sense of personal accomplishment,” 95 percent agreed.
It certainly comes at a price. Respondents reported their schedules were grueling and unpredictable, working an average of 70 hours a week when in Washington and 59 hours a week during district work periods.
While the findings are striking, the sample size is small: Of the 194 House members selected at random to respond to survey questions, only 25 responses were submitted.
It helps that the pool of survey participants actually ended up being a very close representation of the true party, age and gender ratios of the 112th Congress, but CMF Executive Director Brad Fitch emphasized that the report was always intended to be “a snapshot, a window into Congress.”
For Fitch, however, it’s a crucial window through which he hopes people will begin to think about how members of Congress see themselves and their work.
Moreover, Fitch hopes it will spark discussions about how lawmakers’ self-evaluations might correlate with larger questions about congressional effectiveness — or ineffectiveness.
“In management, we say you don’t mistake activity for achievement,” he said. “So here they are, putting in all this work, and yet they are not perhaps getting the results they hope for.
“They are working hard,” Fitch continued. “They are motivated. There is something not right. This report could be helpful in that, maybe it’s not the motivations or the work ethics of members of Congress that’s the problem.”
Rep. Susan A. Davis, D-Calif., who said she did not participate in the survey but that members of her staff have taken part in CMF studies in the past about the congressional workforce, backed Fitch’s observations and the report’s findings.
“People think we’re just sitting around and waiting to vote,” she told CQ Roll Call. “We’re actually working very hard, keeping very busy.”
Davis also described her approach to her job as constituent-driven, highlighting another key finding of the CMF/SHRM report: 95 percent cited “staying in touch with constituents” as the most important aspect of the job.
“I see my job through the lens of a social worker,” she said. “I see myself as a resource to people.”
She added that her contributions are not lost on the people she works for at home in San Diego, no matter the gridlock on Capitol Hill: “As I go around and talk to people, a lot of them say, ‘I’m so glad you’re there.’ I hear that from my colleagues all the time.”
The report doesn’t seek to answer questions or propose solutions to the larger problems that loom large beneath the Capitol Dome, nor does it probe members’ feelings about the state of the institution as did the only other report of this kind, a 1998 study by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Pew declined to comment on that study for this story.
Instead, Fitch suggested that the findings could, if nothing else, help people realize that the House includes lawmakers like Davis, those who fall under the radar of the national spotlight and see their jobs as meaningful in ways that run contrary to what the public sees.
“Most of the media at the national level doesn’t cover the membership, they cover the leadership,” he said. “They see the leadership battles, the partisan sniping. . . . It’s a very small representation of Congress, but it’s the Congress that Americans see.”