MARK TWAIN was only kidding when he bad-mouthed Congress years ago. ``It could probably be shown by fact and figures,'' Mr. Twain deadpanned, ``that there is no distinctly native American criminal class - except Congress.'' But the American public is serious when it says negative things about Congress now. When polls ask: ```Does the congressional system work well?', the answer is `no,''' says Everett C. Ladd, director of the Roper Center.
Americans see Congress as ``antiquated, slow, preoccupied with large contributors, inefficient, insensitive, and unable to address the large problems'' that confront the United States, says James Sheffield, a professor of political science at Wichita State University.
Ironically, public opinion polls show that the same Americans who decry Congress as an institution applaud their own individual congressmen, Dr. Ladd says.
``Individual members of Congress are personally popular, overwhelmingly by the high 60s, almost 70 percent'' in polls, says House Speaker Thomas Foley (D) of Washington. (This is true for the president as well, who currently has 79 percent approval rating, Speaker Foley notes.)
Americans are probably more aware of their representatives in Congress than ever before, Professor Sheffield says. Chances are that each member has been reelected several times and probably has become well known locally, he says: ``This is someone who responds when you write letters, and probably in a fairly personal sense.''
This bipolar assessment of Congress - viewing the institution unfavorably but individual members favorably - is ``almost a clich'e'' among political scientists, Sheffield adds.
For the last several years polls have shown little change in this divergent public attitude, Ladd adds. Even the well-publicized ethical problems of several members of Congress have failed to generate change in public attitudes, except toward a few members, he says.
The public's dissatisfaction with government extends far beyond Congress to government at all levels, Foley says. Americans hold negative views of federal agencies, state and local governments, and even of the two major political parties, he says: ``It isn't any different in the executive branch than it is in the Congress or at state or local levels ... It is one of the consistent attitudes that is developing in public opinion.''
No one is certain exactly what part of Congress's institutional performance so dissatisfies the public: ``I haven't seen any evidence from surveys'' that would point to a definitive answer, Ladd says. But many political observers have their own opinions.
Ladd personally thinks that ``probably, in some fashion, the public is groping toward a view that makes a distinction between national needs and group interests.'' The public may well feel that Congress meets the demands of powerful special interests, but does not serve the nation's broader needs, he says.
Americans likely hold Congress and other arms of government in low repute, because ``many people simply don't see problems being resolved,'' Foley says. ``They don't see the drug problem moving in a positive way. They don't see education producing a highly educated and effective, trained work force. They see problems in the environment still. They see problems in crime, and so on.''
Yet even as the public makes negative judgments it continues to make demands of Congress, which is part of the problem. ``Congress ... is getting pressure from back home - deliver, deliver, deliver'' domestic programs, says Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D) of Colorado.
``The irony is: If you look at what Congress does, quite a bit is what the public wants,'' says Patricia Hurley, a professor of political science of Texas A&M University. ``The public wants to have its cake and eat it too. It wants the government to do the kind of things the Democrats are good at doing - expand services. ... But the public doesn't want to pay higher taxes'' to finance them.
Thus part of the reason for the paradox: ``People like their district [congressional representative] and want constituent services to continue, so they continue to elect the incumbent,'' says Professor Hurley. ``But they also tend to agree with presidential rhetoric,'' and don't want their taxes raised.
Two important contributing factors to the public's dislike of Congress as an institution are the politically divided government in Washington, and the dynamics of the news business, especially television news, Hurley adds.
Divided government allows the Republican president to blame the Democratic-controlled Congress ``when he doesn't get his way,'' she says. Newspaper readers and TV watchers hear his message, she adds.
In addition, unlike Congress the president makes television news programs ``not only when things go wrong, but also when things go right,'' she explains.
``When is it that Congress gets in the news?'' Hurley asks. ``We see TV coverage of Congress when there's a scandal going on ... [and] when Congress is giving in to specific interest-group pressure. ... There may be a distortion here in what the public is perceiving.
``It's not very newsworthy to say: Nobody took any bribes today. Nobody got indicted. Nobody slept around.''
The public focuses on the shortcomings of Congress and the rest of American government without considering the magnitude of the challenges that confront government, congressional observers say. Nor does the public recognize its own role in acknowledging its own responsibility for pressuring Congress into being overly responsive to special interests, observers contend.
``So there is a [public] reaction that sets in that I think becomes unduly harsh,'' Foley says. ``And I am convinced, frankly, that if people could come back to Washington and have free access to every room in the Capitol and sit in on every meeting private and public [in] the Congress and in the administration, they would go home much more convinced'' that the federal government is not doing as badly as some people might think.