- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Last week, the Gallup Organization issued some positive news for those interested in administering Botox for Congress’ sagging image. The survey company documented an increase in legislative branch approval ratings now that Democrats control the House and Senate. “Congressional Job Approval Gets Boost After Democratic Takeover,” Gallup wrote. Yet even with the “boost” to 35 percent, Congress’s approval rating remains one of the lowest in the past five years.

Congress as an institution could never win a popularity contest. In fact, since consistent polling began, its average yearly approval rating had never reached 50 percent until 2001 and 2002, when citizens responded positively to lawmakers’ bipartisan response to the September 11 terrorist attacks. And until this month’s “bump,” the numbers had declined steadily over the past five years.

Moreover, a 35 percent approval rating is nothing to write home about — just ask President Bush, who now hovers around the same level as Congress. Consistently low popularity for important national institutions is corrosive for the engines of democracy. And while there are numerous causes for this collective black eye, increasingly the way lawmakers address key issues emerges as the main culprit behind why Americans hate Congress.

Most people cannot relate to how the House and Senate set their agendas. It is like a foreign language or an incomprehensible puzzle. Mix legislative-process Babel with even a pinch of cynicism, and it produces bitter citizen discontent. Americans believe the ship of state has sprung numerous leaks and the water is quickly rising.

Putting aside behemoth apprehensions about the future of Iraq and the ongoing war on terror, there are many other planks falling off the hull. A looming crisis with the cost and solvency of retirement and health care programs, the prospect of job loss due to corporate downsizing or outsourcing, the future competitiveness of our educational system, and how to find the right balance on immigration are just a few of the problems ordinary Americans see facing our country.

When confronted with problems, most individuals, families or even organizations come together to find common-sense solutions. Maybe not perfect answers, and perhaps incremental steps as part of a bigger, comprehensive plan, but they try to achieve movement nonetheless toward a goal. But that’s not the response, attitude or process citizens see in Congress. This week’s hair-trigger firefight about the budget is just the latest in a long line of point-and-shoot partisan responses. Positioning always trumps solutions.

In their book “Congress as Public Enemy,” John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse write: “In the minds of the people, the professionalized political institutions of today are not contributing to efficient resolutions; perhaps modern accoutrements have even made the situation worse by conveying the sense of a ponderous, expensive, massive and largely unresponsive system. The public sees dawdling where it wants to see action.”

Part of the problem is how the public learns about the legislative process through the media, which focuses largely on the conflict and dysfunction in the system. But how lawmakers articulate why they are here in Washington also contributes to stoking voter cynicism.

E.J. Dionne, in his 1991 book, “Why Americans Hate Politics,” writes that today’s political process and rhetoric are not about finding solutions: “[I]t is about discovering postures that offer short-term political benefits. We give the game away when we talk about ‘issues’ not ‘problems.’ Problems are solved; issues are merely what politicians use to divide the citizenry and advance themselves.” Political conflict is baked into the cake of a pluralist system and will always be with us. But as Dionne writes, “At its best, democratic politics is about what Arthur Schlesinger Jr. calls ‘the search for remedy.’ The purpose of democratic politics is to solve problems and resolve disputes.”

Unfortunately in our polarized political world, most lawmakers talk about where they (and their party) stand on issues rather than first articulating their aspirations to solve problems. This tendency is particularly pronounced among Republicans and conservatives, who hold deep philosophical reservations about government remedies to all that troubles us. Yet these legitimate suspicions should not detract from solutions taking another form.

As long as Republicans and conservatives are perceived as more interested in just arguing about ideas instead of offering concrete remedies, they will remain the minority party in America. And until more lawmakers, in both parties, begin to talk about their agendas as vehicles to solve problems as opposed to tools to defeat their opponents, Congress’ reputation will continue to droop and remain in need of a reputation facelift.

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