Tanking Popularity of Congress Doesn't Matter

Washington Matters

Tanking Popularity of Congress Doesn't Matter

Why is nobody in Washington, especially majority Democrats in Congress, all that worried about Gallup's new poll showing the approval rating for Congress at an all time low of 14%? Probably because it doesn't matter. Here's why.

The history of generic polls asking whether Congress is doing well have long been fraught with problems, and even if they accurately done, they provide little meaning. The number is almost always going to be very low. So low, in fact, you would think incumbents should be scared. That they're not is one reason such congressional polls should be largely discounted. Democrats will be picking up seats, even if only one in seven approves of the job Congress is doing.

Partisanship and gridlock is certainly one reason for the low polling. There's plenty of it, and a very low rating could be a sign of public exhaustion with congressional inertia.

Another reason is the generalness of the question -- "Is Congress doing well?" Hmmm. It's like asking if major league baseball is doing well? Some teams are. As a whole? Not sure. And the steroid scandal is a problem, right? Ticket prices are high. Barry Bonds shouldn't have broken Hank Aaron's record. Maybe it's not doing so well, after all. But people keep buying tickets and watching games on TV.


Everyone has some gripe about Congress, too. It's certainly not a well-greased or functional machine, but it never was intended to be, with all of its checks and balances and time-honored rules and minority rights, etc. Plus those who don't really care in the first place about Congress are more likely to answer in the negative anyhow. Why say you like something you don't even follow much and is lambasted by late-night comics all the time?

Yet another reason is the partisan breakdown of the country. Few Republicans will applaud a Democratic-run Congress in a poll.

Truth is, most often it's the case that someone who gives a thumbs down to Congress in a poll as a general proposition supports his or her own congressman with whom they are much more familiar.    

I remember years ago interviewing then-Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, D-Maine, at a time when he was trying to lead the Senate out of total gridlock. He looked exhausted with the effort of trying to get everyone on the same page of the hymnal for just one day to get even a little bit done. But he smiled. "I'm not surprised our approval rating is so low and so little gets done," he said. "I never expected this to be a tabernacle chior, or for any of us to be elected to it if it were."