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Richard Doty
IU Media Relations

Edward Carmines
Political Science Department

Last modified: Thursday, May 15, 2003

IU national study focuses on public's view of Congress

Americans have a general understanding of how Congress works but are considerably less knowledgeable about its specific organization and operation.

These are among the findings in a comprehensive national study by the Center on Congress at Indiana University Bloomington through the IU Center for Survey Research. The 2002 survey was partially funded by the Representative Democracy Project through the U.S. Department of Education.

Edward Carmines, research director for the center and Rudy Professor and Warner O. Chapman Professor of Political Science at IUB, said, "In summary, most citizens have a general understanding of the function of Congress as a lawmaking body in our constitutional system, but many do not have detailed and specific knowledge of the organization and operation of Congress."

The survey found that 69 percent of those responding stated correctly that a two-thirds vote in Congress is needed to overturn a presidential veto, 77 percent knew that the bulk of congressional work takes place in committee, and 78 percent knew that the House and Senate work out a compromise if they pass different versions of the same bill.

Regarding knowledge of important legislation, 78 percent knew that the last Congress passed tax cut legislation, 76 percent knew that Congress voted to establish a Department of Homeland Security, and 61 percent knew that Congress passed new campaign finance reforms in 2002.

At the other end of the knowledge scale, Carmines said only 44 percent of the respondents knew that a term in the House of Representatives is two years, only 46 percent knew that a Senate term is six years, only 44 percent understood that the vice president breaks a tie vote in the Senate, and only 47 percent knew that the Democrats were the majority party in the Senate.

Carmines said the survey, which included an additional sampling in the 50 most competitive congressional districts, is the most comprehensive ever completed on the role of Congress in American politics. It involved a random probability sample of 1,500 Americans responding over the telephone to questions. The complete survey involved 130 questions and took those answering approximately one hour to finish.

Among other findings, 50 percent of the respondents said they followed public affairs most of the time. Thirty-four percent received information about government from daily newspapers, 38 percent from watching national news on television, and 35 percent from watching local news on television. Only 19 percent believed that government and politics were so complicated that they couldn't understand what was going on.

These findings are the first in a series of reports titled "Exercising Citizenship in American Democracy." Future reports will analyze such related topics as public perceptions of Congress and public attitudes toward congressional policies.

The Center on Congress is directed by former Indiana Congressman Lee Hamilton. "I am very pleased with this study," Hamilton said. "It will deepen our understanding of what citizens know about Congress and how they evaluate its members and the institution itself."

The Center on Congress is located on the Bloomington campus of IU with the goal of improving public understanding of Congress. The center's Web site is

For more details, contact Carmines at 812-855-5065 or