- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Although a heat wave makes it seem like summer is upon us early in Washington, a gaggle of pundits, journalists and some political pros forecast a chill in the air concerning voter attitudes toward Congress. Viewing low job-approval ratings and slumping polls as foreboding thunderheads, capable of striking down incumbents with electoral lighting, some draw parallels between the 2006 elections and the 1994 tsunami that ended 40 years of Democratic control of the House of Representatives. Yet while these prognostications may be electrifying, they are also probably all wet.

Tim Russert on NBC’s “The Today Show” said Congress’s job-approval numbers were “disastrous,” and that Americans were “frustrated” with the lack of “any kind of common ground, an arrogance of power … they just plain aren’t happy with the way Congress is conducting itself.” Similarly, “Mutiny on Capitol” was John McLaughlin’s “issue one” recently, focusing on why “voters now favor Democratic control of Congress.” Is the sour public mood an early indication of shifting tectonic plates in the political landscape? Not at all. Viewed in historical context, overall congressional job approval is not in the tank by any measure; and the more important number, how voters view the job performance of their “own representative,” is higher than it was in 1994. All the hand-wringing about approval misses a major point: excepting a few aberrations, Americans never have love affairs with Congress, nor should they.

Last week, ABC News/Washington Post released a poll showing congressional job approval at 41 to 54 percent (approve/disapprove). Far from “disastrous,” these numbers match the average approval since these organizations started asking this question in 1989 (41 to 53 percent is the 16-year average).

The Gallup organization has asked what Americans think about Congress in general since 1974, and for the last 30 years the average margin has been 41 to 48 percent (approve/disapprove). Net congressional approval spiked positive after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but with just a few exceptions it’s historically negative. According to John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Moore in their book “Congress as Public Enemy,” Gallup asked the question a little differently going back to the mid and late 1940s and found only 15 to 25 percent thought Congress was “doing a good job.”

A positive evaluation of “your own representative” in Congress is a more illuminating political question. The same ABC/Washington Post poll reveals some disdain for Congress as an institution, but incumbent lawmakers are still riding pretty high. Americans give their own representative a 61 to 32 percent (approve/disapprove) rating, which, again, almost matches the average approval since ABC News/Washington Post started asking the question (62 to 28 percent, approve/disapprove is the historical average). This important indicator did dip down near 50 percent (51 to 38 percent approve/disapprove) right before the 1994 congressional elections, perhaps foretelling the Democrats’ loss of their 40-year majority that November. Still, Congress probably needs a couple of collective meltdowns before sinking to those depths.

Consistently high congressional popularity is an unrealistic and even unhealthy expectation. We don’t want lawmaking to run as efficiently as a bank. Getting checking-account balances quickly is a good thing; altering the laws of the land with the same speed and efficiency may not be. Like a garden filled with thorns, resolving these issuesoften leaves the “debaters” bloody.

Moreover, voters may “disapprove” of congressional actions for wildly different reasons. Not cutting taxes enough leads some to say they “disapprove,” while others object to all the reductions enacted in last four years. Both voters are lumped into the same “disapprove” camp, but will likely vote differently. Mr. Hibbing and Miss Theiss-Moore chalk up these results to problems with survey methodology. Their book concludes: “Survey questions on political institutions have usually been superficial, poorly worded, posed sporadically, or accompanied by inadequate or non-existent background questions.” Drawing apocalyptic electoral conclusions about Congress from current polling data is a popular but misguided parlor game. The news media loves stories about conflict between the parties in Congress, ethics troubles of lawmakers and how the body just can’t seem to get things done — fodder that increases negative voter evaluations of Congress, but not the number of incumbents defeated. This electoral storm isn’t likely to inflict much damage next fall.

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