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Poll: As debt battle looms, 55% of Americans say GOP House is 'dysfunctional'

The Treasury Department building. A sign in the foreground, attached to a fence, reads: Restricted area. Do not enter.
The Treasury Department building in Washington, D.C., on Thursday. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

By a massive 30-point margin, Americans say Republicans’ protracted battle earlier this month to elect a new House speaker is a sign that “Congress is dysfunctional” (55%) rather than “functioning as intended” (25%), according to a new Yahoo News/YouGov poll.

And that’s probably a harbinger of trouble ahead as the United States breaches its debt limit and barrels toward yet another dramatic clash on Capitol Hill in the coming weeks.

Even among Republicans, more see the recent speaker standoff — described in the survey as taking “15 rounds of voting — the most in 100 years — because of resistance from a small group of Republicans” — as evidence that Congress is dysfunctional (48%) rather than functional (37%).

As the U.S. officially hit its debt ceiling Thursday, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said she would have to take “extraordinary measures” to avoid a financial meltdown and urged congressional leaders to “promptly” raise the nation’s borrowing limit. (Raising the limit allows the federal government to cover expenses it has already authorized in order to avoid a catastrophic default that could wipe out $15 trillion in wealth and cost as many as 6 million jobs, according to one recent estimate.)

Yet conservative House Republicans — newly emboldened by their success in prolonging the speaker battle and by promises that the eventual winner, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, reportedly made to secure their votes — are demanding steep budget cuts in exchange for letting the government pay off its past debts. In contrast, the Biden administration says it won’t negotiate and is insisting instead on a “clean” increase of the sort that Republicans approved three times while Donald Trump was president.

The new Yahoo News/YouGov survey of 1,538 U.S. adults, which was conducted from Jan. 12 to 16, found that nearly twice as many favor the Biden position (“a traditional ‘clean’ debt-limit vote without new policy demands,” at 45%) than favor the right-wing Republican position (“attaching new policy demands to the debt-limit vote,” at 24%). Predictably, Democrats prefer the Biden position by a wide margin (61% to 19%) — but again, even Republicans are not particularly supportive of future debt-limit brinkmanship, with 35% preferring a clean vote and 36% preferring to attach policy demands.

In addition, it’s entirely possible that conservative demands for budget cuts could lose further public favor once conservatives announce which federal programs they actually want to cut. Of the choices offered in the poll — which mirror the latest reporting on potential GOP demands — cuts to federal spending on “aid to Ukraine in the war with Russia” (44% favor) is the only proposal that even approaches majority support. The rest — cutting spending on the U.S. military (22%), Social Security (10%) or Medicare (9%) — aren’t even close.

A billboard reads: The national debt is $31 trillion and growing.
A billboard showing the national debt in Washington on Thursday. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

And while a majority of Republicans do favor cutting aid to Ukraine (63%), the share who want to slash spending on the military (15%), Social Security (12%) or Medicare (12%) is about as minuscule as it is among Americans as a whole.

Further complicating matters for House conservatives is the fact that many Americans don’t really get what the debt limit is all about — but the more they learn, the less they want Congress to hold it hostage. Less than half of U.S. adults (42%), for instance, correctly understand that the debt limit must be raised “to allow the federal government to pay for spending that Congress has already authorized”; more either say the U.S. regularly raises the debt limit “to authorize new federal spending” (25%) or are not sure (33%).

In that light, it’s not surprising that when Yahoo News and YouGov asked a random half of poll respondents whether they “favor or oppose raising the U.S. debt limit” — with no additional context — more said they opposed it (40%) than said they favored it (28%). Yet when the other half were asked the same question after hearing a description of the likeliest consequences — “defaulting on America’s past debts” and failing to pay “Social Security benefits and military salaries” while “sparking a possible recession” — the numbers completely flipped, with 45% now saying they favored raising the limit and just 24% saying they were opposed.

And meanwhile, about one-third of Americans say they’re “not sure” how to respond to any questions about the debt limit — suggesting that opposition to the GOP’s hardball tactics has further room to grow if the U.S. does default and economists’ worst predictions come to pass.

The upshot is that Speaker McCarthy has his work cut out for him going forward. For now, pluralities of Americans (43%) and Republicans (47%) are not sure if they view him favorably or unfavorably, and they’re equally uncertain whether they approve or disapprove of the job he’s doing as speaker (45% and 47% not sure, respectively).

Yet McCarthy’s early reviews among all U.S. adults — 20% favorable vs. 37% unfavorable; 24% approve vs. 31% disapprove — are negative, on the whole. And Republicans and Republican-leaning independents are divided over whether the House GOP should have chosen McCarthy (32%) or someone else (31%) as speaker.

At the same time, sizable pluralities of Americans oppose many of the reported concessions that the Californian made to “persuade holdouts in his own party,” including giving the anti-McCarthy holdouts seats on powerful committees (42% oppose, 24% favor); allowing any one member to force votes on an unlimited number of amendments to spending bills (42% oppose, 23% favor); and allowing any one member to force a vote to remove the speaker at any time (37% oppose, 30% favor).

Speaker Kevin McCarthy stands at a set of microphones at a news conference.
Speaker Kevin McCarthy at a news conference in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall on Jan. 12. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images)

Other reported concessions, however, are more popular: posting legislation at least 72 hours in advance of a vote so lawmakers have time to review it (68% favor, 10% oppose); creating a special committee to investigate the Justice Department and the FBI (51% favor, 27% oppose); and ending pandemic-era congressional voting by proxy, which allowed members of Congress to cast votes without being in Washington, D.C. (46% favor, 29% oppose).

For McCarthy to succeed, then, the trick will be placating his party’s most extreme members without succumbing to their least popular demands. Following the recent House speaker fight, just 26% of Americans say Republicans “have the right priorities” — down 5 points since late October — while more than twice as many (54%) say they are “not paying enough attention to America’s real problems.”

Perceptions of Democrats aren’t quite as bad — 30% “have the right priorities” vs. 52% “not paying enough attention to America’s real problems” — with no significant changes since August.

Likewise, Americans are now 20 points more likely to say Republicans have a greater interest in “damaging” the other party (48%) than “passing legislation” (28%) — and just 6 points more likely to say the same of Democrats (at 42% to 36%, respectively).

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The Yahoo News survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,538 U.S. adults interviewed online from Jan. 12 to 16, 2023. The sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, education, 2020 election turnout and presidential vote, baseline party identification and current voter registration status. Demographic weighting targets come from the 2019 American Community Survey. Baseline party identification is the respondent’s most recent answer given prior to March 15, 2022, and is weighted to the estimated distribution at that time (32% Democratic, 27% Republican). Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel to be representative of all U.S. adults. The margin of error is approximately 2.7%.