Friday, August 12, 2011

Why do we hate Congress?

The most recent NYT/CBS public opinion poll shows Congress's approval rating down to about 14% favorable. (According to Fox, it's 10%!) Wow. That is really low. I don't remember when people hated Congress this much.

This low opinion of Congress obviously reflects unhappiness with the recent debt ceiling negotiations, which didn't seem to reflect well on anyone in Congress. But the parties did finally reach an agreement, and the agreement probably reflects, about as well as any agreement could, a consensus on what Americans want to do about debt and deficit reduction. Apparently, not much.  The poll results do seem to indicate that many, perhaps most people, would have preferred to see some revenue increases as part of the mix. But my guess is that the negative reaction to watching how Congress works has more to do with the process than the result. People are frustrated that it was so hard for Congress to get something done that a consensus wanted to get done. That most members seemed more intent on blocking the other side's plan than in adapting their own plan in a way that would enable us to move forward.

Maybe, however, we ought to recognize that if Congress is not functioning properly, that to some extent reflects a larger dysfunction among ourselves. After all, Congress is the part of government that reflects all of us more accurately than any other part of government. So if Congress acts in a way that is fractious and partisan and ill-informed and stubborn and foolish, maybe if we looked in the mirror, we might see some of those same traits. It's also interesting to note that while opinions of Congress are at a particularly low point right now, our low opinion of Congress is nothing new. The funny thing is that polls over time also show that people don't usually hate their own Congressman. It's everyone else's Congressman we are unhappy with. (Even that may be changing, however. According CNN, most people right now don't even want to see their own Congressman re-elected.) Or maybe it's just that we are sick of the whole process. According to these poll results, people want to see more compromise. But it may be that what we really want is for the other side's representatives to compromise. When our own representatives compromise, we're not so happy about that.

In President Obama's speech in Michigan on Wednesday, he tried to channel people's frustration with Congrees in a positive direction. The president asked people to send a message to Congress to put aside some of the partisan wrangling, and just try to get stuff done that most people seem to want done. People may have voted for divided government. That doesn't mean they wanted dysfunctional government.

Partisans on the right need to recognize that the results of the 2010 election do not mean that people were buying 100% of what the Tea Party was selling. And polls since that time show a steady decline in the popularity of that particular program. Partisans on the left need to recognize that the Republicans won the 2010 mid-term elections. That means the left can get even less of what they advocated than they could prior in the previous two years. Both sides need to recognize that they need the other side to get anything passed. If the deficit battle proved anything, it certainly proved that. But there ought to be enough things that would command a majority of the people's support that the parties can agree on at least a few positive programs. The alternative is gridlock, and gridlock isn't making anybody look good right now.

(Capitol dome photo from CSI)

1 comment:

  1. Good call and nice write up Joe. Looking back, polls related to congress seem to drop dramatically whenever they are in the news. That probably reflects the bickering that is such a part of the each news cycle as well as individuals and parties using the publicity as a way to score points for their side (even though they actually lose support).

    According to a CBS poll, on the weekend of the house's vote on health care reform, Pelosi's approval rating was 11% and Reid's was 8%. That is a lot of hate. However, when they go silent approval tends to rise.

    As you note, most people like their own representatives! It's the other guy's representative who drops the ball. I wonder if that is a way to defend our own choices as well as the result of porkulous spending.

    Before accepting a poll as a realistic gauge, I like to know who gives the poll, read the questions carefully and then understand who takes the poll. In some cases it is important to get likely voter samples. If not, the polls lose predictive value. The meaning of a poll can be manipulated pretty easily to reflect a desired outcome. In general, we shouldn't rely on Gatorade to tell us we need sodium in a sports drink. They tend to sell bias.