Just 16 percent of voters approve and 77 percent disapprove of the job Congress is doing, according to the September Reason-Rupe poll. Political pundits who view Congressional action as virtue and gridlock as vice conclude these numbers vindicate their frustration. However, Americans who disapprove of Congress don’t necessarily want to see more action for action’s sake. Instead, 50 percent of them say they want Congress to pass fewer laws than it’s currently doing, only 27 percent of them want Congress to pass more laws, while 16 percent are content with the status quo.

Ultimately, these numbers reveal a deeper schism in American politics: the debate over the proper role of government in society. This division is also playing out in the presidential election, with 72 percent of Romney voters wanting Congress to pass fewer laws, compared to 22 percent of Obama voters.

Expectations for Congressional action are correlated with Americans’ perceived fairness of the economic system. Among those who want Congress to pass fewer laws, 69 percent believe Americans have an equal opportunity to succeed. In contrast 59 percent of those who want more laws believe Americans do not have equal opportunities. This probably explains why 77 percent of those who want fewer laws believe income inequality is an acceptable part of the economic system, compared to 56 percent of those who want more laws and believe government needs to fix income inequality. Consequently, these divergent views predict whether someone believes government should redistribute wealth. Among those who want Congress to pass fewer laws, 87 percent say it is not the government’s role to redistribute. Fifty-six percent who think Congress should pass more laws also believe government has a responsibility to redistribute wealth.

In sum, Congressional discontent is not a license to plow through gridlock to pass more legislation. These data also suggest that raising Congress’ approval rating will not be easy because disapproval is rooted in the central debate of American history: what is the proper role of government in a free society. Consequently, “compromise” means different things to different people.

Nationwide telephone poll conducted September 13th-17th on both landline and cell phones, 1006 adults, margin of error +/- 3.8%. The sample also includes 787 likely voters, with a margin of error of +/- 4.3%. Columns may not add up to 100% due to rounding. Full methodology can be found here. Full poll results found here.