Republicans think the federal government should do less. Democrats think it should do more. But both agree it should be doing a lot better, according to a new poll.
By strong majorities, Americans of both parties believe that the federal government does a poor or only fair job of running its programs, according to the survey by the Pew Research Center. Only one in five rates its performance excellent or good.
The study's name, "Beyond Distrust: How Americans View Their Government," accurately sums up voters' broad views of the federal government's performance. But the survey also shows there are areas in which the government enjoys broad support.
And as low as the public rates the performance of some federal agencies, not even the Internal Revenue Service scores as low as Congress. Just 29 percent of Americans view the performance of their federal lawmakers favorably, and the numbers are lower among Republicans, even though the GOP controls both houses.
Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, called the Pew survey the "gold standard" in terms of its research.
He also called the results "pretty stark."
"The public believes in government action, but in many ways doesn't believe it's getting what it wants out of government,' he said. "To lose the public confidence is frankly a real challenge to our democracy."
Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, called the survey's finding that just 19 percent of Americans trust the federal government "disconcerting."
"Constant gridlock in Congress, polarized and partisan politics, and the inability to compromise are all contributing factors," Reardon said. "The government shutdowns of the past and continued threats of shutdowns also color this bleak view of government."
The public gives the federal government high marks for responding to natural disasters, setting standards for the workplace, and ensuring safe food and medicine. More than 70 percent say it does a good job in those areas.
While Democrats are marginally more positive about how the government handles those functions, the differences with Republicans are insignificant.
"In the time of a political silly season, there's still a consensus that many of the government functions are important to Republicans and Democrats alike," Stier said.
The overall numbers are still strong for keeping the country safe from terrorism, with 72 percent rating the federal government's performance here well. But there the gap between Democrats and Republicans is 25 percentage points. (The survey was taken before the attacks in Paris.)
The government gets its lowest marks — 68 percent negative — for managing the immigration system and for helping people out of poverty, a category in which 61 percent say it's doing a poor job. On immigration, the gap on performance is particularly wide, with only 15 percent of Republicans saying the government is doing a good job.
On poverty, the partisan gap is not so much on performance but on whether the federal government should play a major role at all. The survey showed that 72 percent of Democrats say yes; 36 percent of Republicans agree.
The only question on which there was a wider divide on the role of government was ensuring access to health care. Eighty-three percent of Democrats saw a major federal role; 34 percent from the GOP concurred.
There was mildly positive news for workers at three Maryland-based agencies.
The Social Security Administration, the National Security Agency, and Food and Drug Administration had positive rankings of 51 percent to 55 percent and unfavorable rankings in the 30s.
None achieved the stellar approval levels of the U.S. Postal Service, the National Park Service, the Centers for Disease Control or NASA, each of which had favorability percentages of 70 percent or above.
Predictably, the IRS received one of the lowest ratings among executive agencies, with only 42 percent viewing it favorably. Among Republicans, only 24 percent viewed the tax-collecting agency favorably — a 34-point gap with the Democrats.
Reardon, whose union represents IRS workers, said the agency collects 93 percent of the revenue that supports the activities of more popular agencies.
"The IRS makes it possible for Americans to enjoy their national parks, to have a strong national defense, to ensure that our borders are protected and that our food and medicines are safe," he said.
The only agency viewed less favorably than the IRS is the Department of Veterans Affairs, which has plunged from a 68 percent approval level to 39 percent amid revelations about delays in health care services to veterans.
The dissatisfaction is bipartisan, with Democrats only slightly less unfavorable to the agency than Republicans.
Marilyn Park, legislative representative for the American Federation of Government Employees, said the VA and other agencies have been struggling to provide good customer service because Congress has denied them needed resources.
"I think public servants are trying to do more with less as resources for government services shrink," Park said.