Most Hated Congress Ever

The job approval numbers for Congress are at historic lows, but will that matter in 2012?

The immediate aftermath of the resolution of the debt ceiling deal portends bad news for Congress as a whole, and specifically for Congressional Republicans and Speaker John Boehner:

The debate over raising the debt ceiling, which brought the nation to the brink of default, has sent disapproval of Congress to its highest level on record and left most Americans saying that creating jobs should now take priority over cutting spending, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll.

A record 82 percent of Americans now disapprove of the way Congress is handling its job — the most since The Times first began asking the question in 1977, and even more than after another political stalemate led to a shutdown of the federal government in 1995.

The overall approval number for Congress was consistent with a recent CNN poll [PDF] which showed that only 14% of those surveyed had a positive opinion of the institution. Perhaps more troublesome for the GOP, though, is the fact that the public seems to be viewing them worse than President Obama and the Democrats:

Republicans in Congress shoulder more of the blame for the difficulties in reaching a debt-ceiling agreement than President Obama and the Democrats, the poll found.

The Republicans compromised too little, a majority of those polled said. All told, 72 percent disapproved of the way Republicans in Congress handled the negotiations, while 66 percent disapproved of the way Democrats in Congress handled negotiations.

The public was more evenly divided about how Mr. Obama handled the debt ceiling negotiations: 47 percent disapproved and 46 percent approved.

Looking deeper into the poll, you find that 57% of those surveyed disapprove of the job that Speaker Boehner has done in connection with the debt ceiling deal. Additionally, it appears that the GOP is winning over the public on the need to cut spending, but losing them when it comes to the question of tax increases for the wealthy:

There were signs that the repeated Republican calls for more spending cuts were resonating with the public: 44 percent of those polled said the cuts in the debt-ceiling agreement did not go far enough, 29 percent said they were about right and only 15 percent said they went too far. More than a quarter of the Democrats polled said that the cuts in the agreement did not go far enough.

But by a ratio of more than two to one, Americans said that creating jobs should be a higher priority than spending cuts.

Though Republicans prevented tax increases from being included in the debt-ceiling deal, half of those polled said the agreement should have included increased tax revenue, while 44 percent said it should have relied on cuts alone. That issue is likely to be revisited soon: Congress is preparing to appoint a special committee to recommend ways to reduce the deficit. Sixty-three percent of those polled said that they supported raising taxes on households that earn more than $250,000 a year, as Mr. Obama has sought to do — including majorities of Democrats (80 percent), independents (61 percent) and Republicans (52 percent).

Now, hating Congress is an American pastime older than baseball, but these are historically high numbers that are leading some political observers to wonder if there will be a political impact come 2012:

“Throw out the old play book,” said Tom Davis, a former Virginia House member and two-time chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Davis added that the “political establishment has delivered two failed wars, Katrina, an economic meltdown and stagnant wages,” and that “unless the economy improves the political system will go through shock therapy.”

Martin Frost, a former Texas Member and past chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, agreed with Davis that what is happening in terms of congressional unpopularity was historically anomalous and could lead to unprecedented results at the ballot box next November.

“This the first time in my political lifetime that significant numbers of incumbents in both parties could lose,” said Frost. “The GOP could win the Senate and lose the House.”

The conventional wisdom says that these poll numbers are due primarily to the partisan rancor on Capitol Hill, and the gridlock that it creates. In reality, though, it seems fairly clear that, as with the President, the most important factor in determining Congressional job approval is the economy:

Approval of Congress tracks the economy quite closely,” said John Sides, a professor of political science at George Washington University, via email. “The simplest thing that members of Congress can do to improve their public standing is stimulate the economy.”

Sides pointed to research published in the book “Tides of Consent” by University of North Carolina political scientist Jim Stimson, that shows how closely all approval ratings, including ratings of the president, senators and governors, track with the Michigan Index of Consumer Sentiment. When Americans feel positive about the economy, ratings of elected officials go up. When the economy is in the doldrums, elected officials’ ratings plummet.

This chart shows the correlation that Sides and Stimson write about:

Given that we are in the middle of a prolonged period of economic uncertainty, it’s not entirely surprising that people would look at Congress, which isn’t really functioning all that worse than it has a periods in the past (hey, at least people are beating members of the Senate nearly to death like they did in the 1850s), with disdain.

I’m also not sure that we’re looking at some kind of serious political shakeup in 2012 if this public mood continues. It’s long been a truism that people hate Congress but love their Congressman, and the extent to which 2012 redistricting will turn many purple districts either more Republican or more Democratic would seem to make it unlikely that large numbers of incumbents are at risk, especially in the House. Instead, we’re likely to see Congressional election results that more or less track the outcome of the Presidential election and it’s unlikely that Obama coattails are going to have any effect at all in predominantly Republican parts of the country.

That’s not to say that the GOP doesn’t have anything to worry about here. The perception seems to be growing in the public that they were on the wrong side in the debt negotiations, and the GOP’s increasingly close association with the Tea Party, which didn’t come out of this whole debacle looking well at all, is likely to hurt candidates in marginal districts. More importantly, the poll shows that the “no new taxes” orthodoxy isn’t as popular with the public as Grover Norquist would like to think. The only thing the GOP has going for it there is that, in the end, Barack Obama is unlikely to call them out on taxes for “the rich” with anything other than empty rhetoric and an eventual backtrack.

So no, I don’t expect a “political cataclysm” like Chris Cillizza, Tom Davis and Martin Frost seem to.


FILED UNDER: 2012 Election, Congress, Deficit and Debt, Taxes, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Short answer: no. Longer answer: Congressional races are won district by district and candidates do matter. Not based on Congressional approval rating.

  2. john personna says:

    All we see is the Summer 2011 plan for 2012. The Tea Party thought that keeping the pledge was the best way to put their movement forward. Obama thought that appearing the moderate was the best preparation. Those plans may matter, or not, a year from now.

    I will say that this chart at The Big Picture had me lowering my already low opinion of congress. It is so easy to follow the cop-out path with automatic caps, automatic cuts, and no guts in congress to chose a particular thing to be reduced or eliminated.

  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Davis added that the “political establishment has delivered two failed wars, Katrina, an economic meltdown and stagnant wages,” and that “unless the economy improves the political system will go through shock therapy.”


  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    On the more serious side of commentary, this

    It’s long been a truism that people hate Congress but love their Congressman, and the extent to which 2012 redistricting will turn many purple districts either more Republican or more Democratic would seem to make it unlikely that large numbers of incumbents are at risk,

    pretty much nails it. I don’t care how often I vote, or how much I contribute to a candidate, or how much I volunteer, I will never see a democrat representing my district (MO=08). Mind you, I will always vote, and contribute what I can, and if a candidate comes along I can actually believe in, I might even volunteer.

    But I will never have a Dem as my Representative.

  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    and by the by, Jo Anne Emerson was that rarest of creatures, a Republican who actually seemed to care, and I dreamed of being able to vote for her. (until 1 1/2 yrs ago I lived in Bourbon MO, MO-09) but in the time I have lived here in Washington Co, she has taken a turn to the despicable…

    A couple months ago I read a column by her about the flooding on the Mississippi which hit on every dog-whistle racism point ever known, and she even invented a few new ones (yeah, she didn’t really write it, she just put her name at the top of it).

    She used to be a human being. There doesn’t seem to be much room for human beings in the Republican Party anymore.

  6. Murray says:

    In my view Congress job approval makes no sense. It’s THE institution Americans love to hate (and it always has been so) although it is the very core of our republic.

    The individual job approval of members of Congress in their district or state is much higher and taking the median of those job approvals would give a very different picture.

    The primary cause for the extreme polarization of national politics which currently paralyzes Congress is well known for years: district gerrymandering.. If only political commentators spent their time denouncing the cause rather than “studying” the effect, we maybe would get something moving on that front.

  7. mike says:

    the problem is that once an individual gets to DC there is so little an individual can do – buck the party and you will pay down the road – go along with the party and suffer with the party – the parties seem to care more about becoming/staying in the majority than the good of the country – how do you change this? you got me. I’d vote for, volunteer for, contribute to the person with the answer.

  8. John Burgess says:

    We can still hope for an asteroid strike on Capitol Hill while Congress is in session, can’t we?

    Starting over from scratch doesn’t seem like a bad option.