Gallup recently released a poll showing public approval of Congress has reached a record low of 13%, shattering the previous record low of… 14%, achieved in July 2008. Meanwhile, disapproval has climbed to 83%, which means only 4% of the population has no opinion one way or the other. It’s entirely possible all of those people are terrified congressional staffers who refused to answer the Gallup poll.
Gallup helpfully provides a graph of congressional approval numbers here. As you can see, they’ve rarely broken 50% approval, except for a huge spike after the 9/11 attacks that most likely reflected a patriotic surge of support for the government in general. You’ll also notice approval ratings tend to perk up in off years… when people really aren’t thinking about Congress much at all.
It’s tempting to assume the new historic lows are part of the dirt Americans are shoveling over the corpse of the awful 111th Congress. That’s surely part of the story – historic lows are not reached without effort! – but I wouldn’t expect a phenomenal surge to universal approval, no matter how much better the 112th is. Breaking 40% would be impressive.
Why would many people “approve” of Congress as a whole? Look at it this way: there’s a good chance they approve of their own state representatives, who wouldn’t have been elected otherwise. A few individual high-profile members of Congress have national followings. Other than that, what’s to approve of, when considering the hundreds of politicians who comprise the legislature of an aggressive central State?
No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, the odds are that once you start paying attention to Congress in an election year, you’re going to see stuff you don’t like. A responsible 112th Congress that makes real progress on the road to fiscal sanity is going to infuriate a lot of people. The State was made huge over the mounting protests of taxpayers; it will be restrained over howls of rage from dependents. It will take a while before the general approval of a dwindling tax base registers more than the acute pain of those who lose their “entitlements” – especially since many of those people are organized into well-funded unions. Even the most absurd dollar wasted by the government will be defended to the bitter end by whoever receives it.
It would be unwise to tout the low approval numbers of the current Congress too heavily as evidence of its failure. The new Congress is not likely to see a massive surge of popular support, as measured by opinion polls, as a reward for its success. There has rarely been a time when doing the right thing was more likely to displease a sizable number of people, and they won’t have to look very hard to find cameras and microphones.