The Wall Street Journal recently noted that public disapproval of Congress has reached an all-time high of 83 percent. More telling still, the same article indicates people are finally making the shift from liking their own legislators but disapproving of Congress generally, to a specific disapproval of the members of Congress who represent them — only 32 percent indicated their congressional representatives deserved re-election. These statistics should bother members of Congress. Sixteen months from now, Americans will have the chance to replace 87 percent of them. There are two easy steps our senators and representatives can take now that will dramatically improve the public approval rating of the legislative branch.
First, members of Congress need to get their websites out of the 1990’s and into the 21st century. Any internet executive will tell you that an engaging website is the key to getting customers to do what you want them to do. Yet the websites of our members of Congress are still little more than electronic bulletin boards: one-way streets for members to pound their chests and tell us how wonderful they are. The techniques for soliciting constituent input are old-school and perfunctory: we can write letters or send emails, texts and blogs. These techniques are the 1990’s equivalent of a suggestion box — they offer no meaningful affirmation that a constituent’s input will be read or acted upon, and no feedback that shows an aggregation of what other voters think. Skyrocketing disapproval ratings tell us something needs to change.
Marketing professionals like to talk about the “call to action” in their promotional materials. They also like to talk about the “value proposition” included with any offering. The websites of our members of Congress have neither calls-to-action nor value propositions that are meaningful to most voters. Incorporating some basic features common to virtually all internet businesses would be easy. Members’ websites should have a secure account for every voter registered in that member’s district (or state, for senators). Every bank in America has a secure-account feature; Congress could adopt this technology in short order. Once this feature is in place, a member of Congress could solicit input from her constituents (call to action!) and display the results of all input received to date as a reward for citizen participation (value proposition!). This simple strategy alone would dramatically and rapidly improve public approval ratings for Congress.
Second, members of Congress could all agree to take the Political Courage Test. Richard Kimball, the President of Project Vote Smart, tells me that the numbers of congressional representatives who take the Political Courage Test has dropped from about 75 percent to less than 20 over the past 15 years. It has become common knowledge that taking the test is politically risky because it forces yes or no answers to questions that officials would prefer to answer in an essay. But this merely highlights another major source of the public’s dissatisfaction. Many people have trouble telling politicians apart because of the politicians’ unwillingness to clearly take a stand on many issues. Last year’s presidential debates exemplified this lack of clarity: each candidate accused the other of holding views which the other candidate subsequently denied. When each of the two leading candidates for the presidency of the United States cannot discern what the other believes, we have a communication problem.
There is risk in communicating clearly and succinctly, but it is a job requirement of any elected public servant to accept that risk. Even as a business executive, my colleagues expect me to answer yes or no to yes-or-no questions, providing additional detail if asked. This standard of conduct is essential for accountability to our shareholders and our employees. Congress has sent many Americans into harm’s way in recent years; those Americans have gone willingly because they were sworn to defend our Constitution. Members of Congress also take an oath to defend our Constitution — they should not be exempt from the political risk of taking a test intended to establish basic clarity about their political positions.
The mere fact that members of Congress shy away from the test implies that they are somehow tricking voters into sending them to Washington with clever messaging. Consumers today are uncomfortable with this ambiguity. We can compare prices between like products using our cell phones as we walk from store to store. The fact that our elected officials feel it necessary to avoid a clear, standardized statement of their beliefs contributes to the public’s perception that members of Congress are hiding something, telling us what we want to hear at campaign events while doing we-know-not-what when out of public view. Having every sitting member of Congress take the Political Courage Test would send a clear message to Americans that our representatives are committed to giving us what we vote for.
Stephen Tryon, a former fellow in the office of Senator Max Cleland, is a Senior Vice President at internet retailer Overstock.com and the author of Accountability Citizenship.