Opinion polls can't justify every legislative action


WASHINGTON -- As Speaker Newt Gingrich & Co. drive toward the end of the 100 days in which they've pledged to get House action on their "Contract with America," they diligently strive for the impression that they are merely riding on a great wave of voter support for their objectives.

But only a few weeks ago, a New York Times/CBS News poll reported that most voters surveyed disagreed with some basic tenets of the contract. They favored, for example, putting a higher premium on reducing the deficit than on cutting taxes, TC centerpiece of the document. So the "mandate" that Gingrich & Co. claim for their "revolution" is not as sweeping as they try to indicate.

Still, other polls do indicate substantial backing for other individual elements in the contract, at least until the Democrats start emphasizing the human costs in the most negative terms, as in their representation of the GOP's plan to shift the school lunch program to the states. The Republicans claim they will increase the funding, but the Democrats dispute that and continue to cast the debate in terms of taking food from the mouths of hungry children.

In this and other programs facing basic revision in the Republican Congress, decisions by the legislators should be based not on propaganda and distortion on one side of each issue or another, but rather on sound and careful judgment. That doesn't mean that members of Congress should completely ignore what their constituents tell the pollsters about this or that issue. There is a danger in today's anti-government climate, however, that many legislators, especially the freshmen, are reading the polls as firm marching orders to them.

The congressional leaders themselves pick and choose when it comes to taking their lead from the polls. When it suits their purpose to trumpet the numbers, as in the heavy support for constitutional amendments to limit congressional terms and to require a balanced federal budget, they are quick to castigate as arrogant or worse any of their colleagues who buck the popular sentiment.

When Republican Sen. Mark Hatfield of Oregon recently refused to knuckle under and vote for the balanced budget amendment as a matter of conscience because he thought it destructive, the polling figures were thrown up to him as if he were a traitor to his constituents. Similarly, Gingrich came down with both feet on the 163 House Democrats (but not the 40 House Republicans) who bucked the public-opinion tide and helped kill term limits.

At the same time, the Republican leaders continue to give lip service to the fight against abortion, in the face of heavy public support in the polls in favor of abortion rights. They continue to talk a good game in their opposition to abortion but low-ball the issue legislatively, hoping to hold on to the support of the influential religious right while not arousing the majority of voters.

The same is true concerning the poll that reported that most voters prefer deficit reduction to tax cuts. The Republican leadership vows it wants to reduce the deficit but moves to cut taxes in accordance with the contract agenda.

It's an old dodge to cite public-opinion polls when they support your position and to overlook them when they don't. But it is one thing to do so tactically and another to castigate others who choose not to be led by the nose by polls as somehow betrayers of the public's desires.

If the polls unerringly reflected informed public opinion on every subject, there would be much better grounds to argue that members of Congress should be guided by what they find. But too often polling numbers reflect how effectively one special interest or another, or one ax-grinding radio talk show host or another, sells his point of view to the public.

The refusal of the Senate Republicans to take punitive action against Hatfield, such as stripping him of his committee chairmanship as urged by some junior members of his party, was in part an act of self-preservation. Senators understood they could be the target next time. But it was also a recognition that voting one's conscience, no matter what the polls say, still has a place in the democratic process.

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