The Importance of Congress’s All-Time Low 10% Approval Rating

As we move closer to November, Congress definitely isn’t growing any more popular. Gallup’s latest nationwide poll reveals that just 10% of Americans actually approve of the job that the 112th Congress is doing. That’s the lowest percentage in the history of Gallup polling on the subject. This is actually the second time Congress sunk that low just this year, as it also hit that mark in February.

No doubt, this new poll provides fresh ammunition for critics of the current Congress. While those critics range across the ideological and political spectrum, the loudest among them by far are Democrats. For whatever reason, the media has placed most of the blame for Congress’s low approval ratings on tea partiers and House Republicans, while Senate Democrats remain largely unscathed.

With Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) as Mitt Romney’s new vice presidential nominee, leftists particularly want to tie the deeply unpopular Congress around the neck of the Romney campaign. Will it work? Only time will tell, but right now I want to consider the importance of these polling numbers.

First, we have to remember that Congress is almost never popular. Looking at the Gallup polling data from 1974 to the present, the highest approval rating was 84%. That rating came in October of 2001, and the previous rating was 42%. Obviously, the sudden doubling of Congress’s approval rating resulted from a rally-’round-the-flag effect due to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Congress’s approval rating typically hovered between 20% and 40%, except for a brief period from the late 1990s through the early 2000s in which the rating fluctuated between 40% and 60%.

The 112th Congress is obviously amongst the least popular since Gallup began its polling, but there are sensible explanations for that. First, the economy still isn’t doing well. Unemployment stubbornly remains above 8%. The 111th Congress dealt with a similar economic situation, so what did its approval ratings look like?

They were a little bit better, but they certainly weren’t great. By the end of their term, their approval rating sat at an abysmal 13%, which is well within the margin of error for the new Gallup poll on the current Congress. Let me remind you that Democrats held large majorities in both chambers during the 111th Congress. Furthermore, it’s reasonable to assume that if economic problems drag on, approval ratings will continue to drop as people grow more and more frustrated.

Weak economic growth and high unemployment are obvious contributors to low approval ratings, but what about the divided control of Congress? I consider this an important cause for the poor ratings, but it’s difficult to find empirical evidence to support this assertion for a few reasons.

Since the Gallup polling began in 1974, there have only been four terms featuring divided Congresses. Unfortunately, I believe that none of them provide a useful comparison to the current Congress. The 107th Congress (2001-2002) actually didn’t even begin as a split Congress. Initially, Republicans held a majority in the House, and Vice President Dick Cheney could cast a tiebreaking 51st vote in the Senate, which was split 50/50.

However, the defection of Senator Jim Jeffords (R-VT) to the Democratic caucus gave control of that chamber to the Democrats,  creating a split Congress. Furthermore, while there was a very brief recession in 2001, the aforementioned 9/11 terrorist attacks led to an enormous surge of support for Congress.

The 97th, 98th, and 99th Congresses (1981-1986) also had divided control. In all three terms, a Republican Senate majority battled with a Democratic House majority. Why don’t I think that these three terms of Congress are helpful in examining the current Congress?

Two reasons. One, Gallup barely took any polls during those six years. In fact, they only took four. In about a year and a half, Gallup has taken nineteen polls of this Congress’s approval ratings. To roughly extrapolate for six years of polling, that would be seventy-eight polls. So, it’s difficult for me to trust a comparison using just four scattered polls.

Also, even if we were to take those four polls at face value, they were made in the context of a better economy. Yes, there was another short (and admittedly severe) recession during the 97th Congress, but its context doesn’t match that of the 112th Congress. By the time that the 112th Congress took office, the United States had been mired in an economic crisis for years, and people were losing hope. The 1981-1982 recession began and ended during the 97th Congress.

More importantly, Americans had just made it through the economic difficulties and stagflation of the 1970s. Now, Americans are comparing their financial struggles to the tremendous economic growth they experienced, almost without fail, from the mid-1980s through the mid-to-late 2000s. It would make sense for present-day Americans to hold the economy’s performance (and by extension, Congress) to a much higher standard.

Due to these reasons, I don’t believe that the Gallup polling data on the other four divided Congresses is useful in examining the polling data on the 112th Congress. So, why do I think that the current divided control of Congress is a major cause for public dissatisfaction? Honestly, because it makes sense.

Think about it: When your political party is in control of both chambers of Congress, it can be a little uncomfortable to say that you don’t approve of the job they’re doing. You might do so anyway, but you’ll be admitting that you made a mistake in previously supporting them. Most people are loathe to do that. So, when one party controls both chambers, there’s a natural base of support for Congress which doesn’t exist for a split Congress.

Still, during an economic boom, independents and members of the opposition party may acknowledge that the current Congress isn’t doing such a bad job. For example, regardless of your party, most Americans would say that Congress and the economy were doing fine during much of the 1990s. In the midst of a recession and high unemployment, however, people aren’t so forgiving. Looking for someone to blame, they’ll focus on the people in power, especially if those people are in the other party.

This is exacerbated by a divided Congress. During a recession, most Americans want the government to do something. I don’t necessarily agree with this tendency (particularly if the “something” is Keynesian in nature), but it’s there nonetheless. With split control of Congress, it’s exponentially more difficult for that Congress to appease Americans by doing something. So, a divided Congress has no natural base of support among the people, nor is it well-suited to respond to an economic crisis.

The 112th Congress clearly shouldn’t be celebrating about their approval rating, but I will say that they’re uniquely positioned to receive these low ratings. A terrible economic recovery, persistently high unemployment, and divided control of Congress are not a recipe for wild popularity.

With this new Gallup poll, the media and the left will try to pin the blame squarely on the Tea Party, House Republicans, Paul Ryan, and now Mitt Romney. They’ll call Congress “dysfunctional and hyper-partisan,” and they’ll insist that this Congress is somehow worse than any other.

Don’t buy it.

About Daniel Anderson

I am a 21 year old Michigan native completing the final year of my undergraduate education at Hillsdale College. I tend to categorize my political philosophy as "constitutional conservatism." I also advocate free-market economics.
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