- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 9, 2005

Congress finished the first half of 2005 like a legislative steamroller, smashing obstacles blocking several long-stalled new laws on trade (Central American Free Trade Agreement), highway funding and energy policy. Lawmakers will likely see the benefits of their labors with a bump in congressional approval ratings following July’s legislative juggernaut.

But Congress needed the boost. Public approval has been on the wane since earlier this year. In January, a Gallup poll put Congress’ approval at 43 percent (48 percent disapprove), but by July approval slipped to 36 percent (58 percent disapprove) — a puzzling decline since the Republican-controlled House and Senate have produced a steady stream of accomplishments this year. Macro-economic conditions like job creation, unemployment, inflation and interest rates have also all been upbeat.

So what’s the matter with Congress? In the most recent American Survey (800 registered voters conducted July 14-17, 2005), we asked those who “disapproved” of Congress to tell us “why.” Voters chose closed-end responses, ranging from the handling of the economy and federal spending to congressional ethics and even the Terri Schiavo matter.

As the chart reveals, 40 percent of those who “disapprove” of Congress cite Congress’s handling the Iraq war as the primary reason. In fact, Iraq rates as the major source of disapproval across all age, gender and political variables (even among self-identified Republicans) — a surprising result given Congress’ limited role in the war.

These numbers provide an interesting insight into the nature of congressional approval. Far removed from the prosecution of the war, it is curious that voters cite Iraq as the principal reason for their discontent with lawmakers. Yet it also illuminates why congressional approval sunk in the past six months despite solid economic news and a host of legislative accomplishments.

With a constant daily pounding in the media, most Americans may now believe the War in Iraq is a problem without a solution — a dangerous place for the collective psyche and a source of voter funk. Even though a clear majority do not want the troops pulled out, the daily diet of bad news, terrorist attacks and a mounting death toll makes Americans extremely anxious. Low ratings for Congress and other institutions of government, along with low “right track” ratings — are probably linked to anxiety about the future, particularly as it relates to Iraq.

It’s an overreach to conclude these results suggest dwindling support for the war effort overall or a desire to immediatelywithdraw troops.Still, despite sturdy resolve, Americans are concerned about the future as we fight the evil of Islamic terrorism.

If that interpretation is correct, it explains a lot about why many voters are in a pensive mood, despite the entreaties of lawmakers trumpeting positive economic news and listing legislative accomplishments. So, while Americans want to know that their representative in Washington is working for them, they also want to know that he or she is listening … recognizing the grim realities of terrorism and the subtle but palpable tensions it fosters. In this environment, a couple of spoonfuls of empathy about voter anxiety, along with reminders about why this is a fight we can and must win, might be just what the doctor ordered to boost congressional job approval and salve voter concerns during these challenging times.

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