Much has been made of Congress’ dismal approval ratings. A Rasmussen poll this summer found they had dipped below 10 percent. Sen. John McCain noted that Congress is less liked than a colonoscopy.
While such ratings may be grist for late-night TV humor, it is tragic and dangerous that Americans have so little respect for a key institution of their democracy. If a poll could have been freely conducted in the former Soviet Union — even during the corrupt, totalitarian and economically disastrous Brezhnev years — it is unlikely that so few Soviet citizens would have had such a low opinion of their government.
Dismaying, funny or pathetic, let’s think what a 10 percent rating really means. If a student got 10 percent on an exam, he or she would fail and be put in a remedial class. If an employee was rated 10 on a scale of 1 to 100 on a performance review, he or she would probably be fired.
So, why do so few of us care that Congress is so despised?
Maybe we have become so cynical about politics that our knee-jerk reaction is to rate our 535 hyper-partisan, get-nothing-done senators and representatives about as highly as the pests for which we hire exterminators. Maybe we’re just so tuned out — posting on our Facebook pages, finding something to watch on our 500 cable channels, or shopping until we drop. Or maybe we are pretty astute: We see failure and call a spade a spade.
For one thing, Congress gets little done. The 112th Congress, which ended in 2012, passed fewer bills than any Congress in recent memory, and the current 113th Congress is on track to do just as badly. Despite strong support for modest gun control and immigration reform, legislation dies in that black hole known as the House of Representatives. The parties routinely bicker over confirming presidential appointments.
What Congress does do often seems patently ridiculous. House Republicans have voted more than three dozen times to repeal Obamacare. Whatever one thinks of the law, they knew that the Democratic-controlled Senate would never go along and, even if it did, President Barack Obama would veto the bill. They were grandstanding.
The sequester may now seem “normal,” but how absurd is it to reach a so-called budget agreement in 2011 that would result in across-the-board cuts to programs, whether they are good ones or bad ones? Congress gave itself a year and a half to reach a real deal to prevent this train wreck, but it failed.
Then there is what we call partisanship but really is more like 3-year-olds fighting in a sandbox. In July, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell called Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid the “worst leader ever.” Rep Joe Wilson famously interrupted a presidential address to Congress by calling the president a liar, sounding like someone in the bleachers who’d had one too many beers. Strict party-line votes are now more the rule than the exception; many Republican members who once acknowledged that climate change was a threat, once called for a health care plan much like what became Obamacare, and once voted for raising the minimum wage now march in lock step with their “Just say no” leadership. Better to get nothing done than to give an apparent victory to the enemy.
You would think that Congress would care about being held in such low esteem and try to change the current scorn into something resembling respect. But no.
Congress-hating hasn’t always been the norm. For much of the past 40 years, approval ratings for Congress hovered around 40 percent (not great, but an awful lot better than 10 percent), with a spike of 80 percent after 9/11. Back in the day — when the United States fought and won World War II, created and expanded Social Security, united to fight the Cold War, and sent a man to the moon — Americans respected their government, including Congress. School textbooks taught students that their governmental system, with its division of powers, was the world’s best.
Once upon a time, the loudest voices in Congress were not the “wacko birds,” as Senator McCain aptly described some of the current obstructionists. People from different parties used to seek and find common ground. McCain worked with Democrat Russ Feingold to pass campaign finance reform. Sen. Ted Kennedy worked with President George W. Bush to craft the last big education reform bill. Further back, President Ronald Reagan and powerful Democratic Rep. Dan Rostenkowski worked together to pass a major tax reform in 1986, and Republican Senate leader Everett Dirksen worked with President Lyndon Johnson to pass the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act.
We’re not just missing the comity and compromises of days of yore but also the great “lions” of Congress — people like Kennedy and Dirksen — whose leadership set standards for decent lawmaking behavior. Not pressed to constantly fundraise, members hung out in Washington, got to know those across the aisle, and realized they were people they could work with. And before congressional districts got so bizarrely gerrymandered to protect incumbents, most Democrats and Republicans were in competitive districts where they had to respect the views of the minority if they wanted to “represent” their entire constituencies and get re-elected.
What are the answers? We need to reduce the role of money in politics; get members of opposing parties to develop personal, respectful relationships; create competitive districts using independent redistricting commissions (rather than being drawn by whichever party controls a state house); and find some new “lions.” And then ramp up public pressure to get something done, rather than just fight.
Of course, these things are easier said than done. But we must try. Thoughtful leaders who can compromise and get the people’s business done, rather than wacko birds fighting in the sandbox, will win respect from more than 10 percent of the American people.
Andrew L. Yarrow is a public policy professional, historian and author. His most recent book is “Measuring America: How Economic Growth Came to Define American Greatness in the Late 20th Century.” He can be reached at email@example.com. He wrote this for The Baltimore Sun.