Thursday, November 21, 2013

Why Congressional approval numbers are in the toilet

Congress' approval numbers are at all-time lows, much lower than the President's numbers (that are nonetheless at an all-time low for him). The latest numbers from Gallup have that rating at just 9% approval. Translation: fewer than one in ten Americans is happy with the way Congress is doing its job. Look at the numbers for Congress since 2008 (according to Gallup):

That spike in early 2009 is easy to explain: it's right after Obama took office with a majority in both Houses of Congress, prior to Congress or Obama actually doing much of anything. But once Congress got down to work, the number starts to drop. Outside of that moment, approval numbers for the legislative branch tend to be below 25% in this period, as a matter of course.

Of course, that's partly a consequence of a reality that does not impinge on Presidential approval numbers: since Congress has members from both political parties in it and is usually not under the control of a single party, there are big chunks of partisans who are going to always disapprove of some Congressional actions. Moreover, the rise of the Tea Party movement in 2009/2010 added another pepper to this gumbo: many Tea Party supporters are unhappy with both parties in Congress.

If we add up all of this near-automatic antipathy towards Congress--people on the left unhappy with Republicans in Congress, people on the right unhappy with Democrats in Congress, and libertarians/tea party-types (and some progressives, to be fair) unhappy with all of Congress--it really isn't unsurprising that Congress rarely has high approval numbers. Under these conditions, anything over 40% is a near impossibility.

If one listens to the media, to the "expert" commentary from various talking heads, none of this is explained. Instead, the low approval numbers are either a consequence--wholly and completely--of Republican obstructionism or Democratic overreach (usually the former, thanks to our biased media elites). Moreover, these low numbers have been "historic" lows for some time now as well,
 according to these same experts. Listening to them and reading what they write, one gets the impression that before the Obama Presidency, Congressional approval numbers could be and were substantially higher, that the drop after Obama assumed office was a consequence of just anti-GOP sentiment. To be fair, there may be some truth here, as the same media elites commenting on such things were and are the ones ginning up that sentiment, by and large. But again, the drop in numbers is far more attributable to the rise of the Tea Party movement in the populace (coupled with the weak economy, of course), in my opinion. It tracks better and is more easily defended.

Still, prior to 2009 people were more likely to be unhappy with Congressional job performance than not. Look at this historical graph from Gallup, extending back to 1974:

Even without the anti-statist mentality of the Tea Party crowd, approval ratings for Congress rarely top 50% (the aftermath of 9-11 being a great example of when such a thing can happen). In fact, they tend to hover between 20% and 40% in the decades before the current administration. And note another reality here, also largely ignored by most people in the media: prior to the mid-90's, polls on Congressional approval just weren't taken all that often. In all of the 1980's such a poll was done by Gallup just seven--that's right, seven--times. Compare that to the first three years of this decade, where such a poll has been done thirty-five times (once a month), already. Historically, we really are comparing different data sets, as specific actions by Congress can lead to tumbling approval numbers in the short term, but we lack data for those short terms, prior to around 1995.

All of that said, numbers consistently below 20% do reflect some sort of change, with regard to the public perception of Congress. Factoring out all of the hardcore partisans and ideologues, such numbers suggest that people are honestly unhappy with Congress, almost across the board. And I would say this is because Congressional leaders are obvious hypocrites, in ways that were never so apparent in the past. They no longer even try to hide it.

Just today, Reid has led the Senate Democrats to undertake a "nuclear option," with regard to Presidential appointments. Predictably, the Republicans--led by McConnell--are outraged by this move. Yet not all that long age, Reid and company--including then-Senator Obama--vehemently opposed such a move, while McConnell was spearheading the attempt to pass it. Hypocrites, every single one of them.

And also not all that long ago, Reid used "pro-forma" sessions to block recess appointments by Bush, a tactic he openly admitted to. Yet with regard to the current White House, Reid agreed with the Administration when it claimed such sessions were insufficient to block recess appointments. And yes, Republicans opposed to Reid's tactics under Bush adopted the same tactics under Obama.

So it's no wonder, really, that the numbers are so low for Congress and will likely remain low into the foreseeable future. Why this last? Simple, because while Congress is largely peopled by hypocrites (there are exceptions, to be sure), the same citizenry that holds them--as a group--in such low esteem simultaneously holds them in much higher regard as individual members, when viewed through the prism of districts and States. The old adage remains true: "Congress is full of crooks, except for my guy (or gal)."

Cheers, all.

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