Why Americans Hate Congress

Why Americans Hate Congress

By Carl M. Cannon - August 19, 2013

Abhorrence of Congress is not new. "To my mind," Mark Twain wrote in a long-ago letter to the editor of a New York newspaper, "Judas Iscariot was nothing but a low, mean, premature Congressman." That was in 1873. Twenty-four years later, Twain's opinion of the denizens of Capitol Hill hadn't modulated. Congress, he quipped, was the only “distinctly native American criminal class.”

It was Twain's friend and biographer, Albert B. Paine, who documented another famous Twain witticism: “Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”

So there's nothing novel about ridiculing the honesty and intelligence of the representatives we send to Washington -- and the record shows that Americans were always predisposed to get the gag.

Today, however, it's no joke. Barring a miracle, the 113th Congress will go down as the least-popular in history. This past week, the venerable Gallup polling organization reminds us that we are living in a time of unprecedented contempt for the elected officials that we, the people, send to Washington. The Gallup survey released Tuesday showed that 81 percent of Americans disapprove of the way Congress is handling its job, with 14 percent approving.

This isn't quite as low as last February, when 10 percent of respondents were positively disposed toward their elected representatives, but as Gallup reported, Congress is now on its way to a fourth straight year of sub-20-percent approval. To put this in perspective, no president has ever been below 20 percent; most don't ever drop below 30.

Although a few mischievous pollsters have had fun revealing that Congress ranks below lice, cockroaches, colonoscopies and root canals, the commentariat views Congress' unpopularity as a very bad thing.

Keith Lee Rupp, a former congressional aide, has posed the following question: “What happens when we are faced with another national crisis -- a declaration of war, a need to investigate presidential wrongdoing on the scale of Watergate, or something the likes of which we haven't faced before --- and the institution we depend on doesn't have the respect of one-tenth of the population?”

I'd argue that what Rupp fears has already happened. During George W. Bush's second term, a sharp partisan divide developed in this country -- and in the halls of Congress -- concerning the wisdom of the war in Iraq. Launched by a Republican president, this war was not supported by either rank-and-filed Democrats or their elected officials. And Democrats in Congress do not seem interested in investigating the current administration's stonewalling on Benghazi or the lies told by IRS officials about its harassment of conservative nonprofit groups.

This raises the question of whether something like the Senate Watergate Committee could even happen today. Richard Nixon was not investigated by congressional Democrats. He was investigated by congressional Democrats and Republicans.

But instead of discussing the implications of this polarization together, and agreeing to tackle them, Republicans and Democrats comfort themselves by asserting that their unpopularity is an illusion. Many of those who detest Congress are liberals perpetually peeved at House Speaker John Boehner and his fellow Republicans for undermining Obamacare and continually battling with President Obama. Another huge portion of the disillusioned includes conservatives who detest the direction of the Democratic-controlled Senate on issues ranging from illegal immigration to taxes. Compared with a poll on presidential popularity, then, the disaffected are essentially being double-counted.

Moreover, in the Senate, most conservative “red” states are represented by Republicans; most of the “blue” states by Democrats. Likewise, House members tend to be popular in their carefully tailored districts -- even as the institution takes a beating. The real villain, therefore, is divided government. That's what the members tell themselves, anyway.

When RCP congressional reporter Caitlin Huey-Burns asked Idaho Republican Rep. Raul Labrador about Congress' unpopularity recently, he shrugged.

“If you look at every one of us individually, in our individual districts, I would bet you that every one of us -- Democrats and Republicans – [has] a higher poll number rating than [Obama] does in any of our individual districts,” he said. “So I think that poll is actually meaningless because it means different things to different people. Republicans are going to be unhappy because we can't get anything passed. Democrats are going to be unhappy because they can't get their agenda passed. So, of course, the vast majority of American people are frustrated.”

Labrador is actually not accurate about Democratic districts -- the president is quite popular there -- although his broader point is accurate. Still, he and most of the rest of them are missing the big picture.

In Bill Clinton's second term, the Republican-controlled House headed pell-mell into a presidential impeachment that was solidly opposed by two-thirds of the country. Here was the rub: When those GOP House members went home to their districts, they found passionate support for impeaching Clinton, and anger at any Republican who dared to demur. Gerrymandering, and its many ripple effects, is the true source of our discontent. 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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