WASHINGTON -- Members of Congress are widely perceived by the public to be corrupt, pampered by unnecessary perquisites and arrogant about their power, the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll indicates.
A striking 83 percent of American adults said they believe that the scores of legislators who overdrew their House bank accounts did so not by mistake but "because they knew they could get away with it," the poll found.
Three people in five told poll-takers that basic privileges the lawmakers enjoy such as travel allowances, staff assistance and free mail are "unjustifiable."
In the wake of criticism over the House bank, the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct met yesterday afternoon and agreed to form a subcommittee of three Democrats and three Republicans who did not overdraw their bank accounts to conduct an inquiry into abuses at the House bank.
For years, polls have shown that people disapprove of Congress generally but have a favorable view of their own representative, and this new survey was no exception.
It was taken Saturday, Sunday and Monday, on the heels of news that the House bank, without charging interest or other penalties, had covered the checks of dozens of lawmakers who had overdrawn their accounts and that representatives' overdue House restaurant bills totaled more than $300,000.
The findings cannot be taken as proof that the public wants to throw Congress out and elect replacements, however. The public view of lawmakers reached an even lower point last October during the battle between President Bush and Congress over raising taxes and reducing the budget deficit, but 96 percent of the House members who ran for re-election still won in November.
The poll of 1,280 adults around the nation was conducted by telephone and had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
In the poll, 27 percent said they approved of "the way Congress is handling its job" and 57 percent said they disapproved. Those figures are not out of line with results normally found in such polls.
Congress' approval rating rises and falls with the news of the day; it reached a recent low of 23 percent during last year's budget battle and a high of 49 percent in January right after the debates and votes to permit war against Iraq.
Fifty-six percent of those questioned said they approved of the performance of the representative from their district, also comparable to the finding in other polls over the years.
But the proportion of people who think most senators and representatives are "financially corrupt" has risen markedly, to 29 percent from 17 percent in August 1990, the last time this question was asked in a New York Times/CBS Desk poll.
An additional 28 percent said they thought "about half" the lawmakers were corrupt, compared with 25 percent the last time the question was asked.