- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 19, 2016

For the first time in memory, more Americans disapprove than approve of the job their own members of Congress are doing, according to a new poll of 1,000 registered voters.

The finding reinforces the idea that the long-festering public distrust of politicians and politics in America has reached monumental proportions sufficient to account for the sudden surfacing of the Donald Trump “tell it like it is, consequences be damned” phenomenon.

Mr. Trump, though struggling with high negatives in the latest polls, beat the pants off 16 fellow GOP presidential nomination wannabes. He did it in part by attracting first-time voters who held politicians in both parties in such low regard that, until his advent, they hadn’t deigned to cast a vote for any “lying, scripted politician” — the description they applied in focus groups and press interviews to all public office holders and seekers alike.

It used to be that voters registered low regard for the job Congress in general was doing but thought the individuals representing their congressional districts in the House were performing OK.

The new national poll by The Winston Group of 1,000 Republicans, Democrats and independents found 43 percent turning thumbs down to their own congressional representatives and only 33 percent giving a thumbs up. The same poll in 2006 found the reverse, with a hefty 58 percent approving and only 33 percent disapproving of their man or woman in Congress.

The findings strengthen a desire by the Congressional Institute and political observers in general for Congress, by itself, to do something about itself.

“We expect to see a resolution introduced in Congress before the July 4 recess that establishes a joint committee on the reform of Congress and its relationship with the executive branch,” said former Congressional Institute Chairman Michael S. Johnson.

“It will be the first time Congress has taken action to change the way it governs in 25 years,” said Mr. Johnson, part of a 35-member voluntary group of former members of Congress and senior staff who have been working on reforms for three years.

A conservative Republican and veteran lawmaker agrees on the need for action.

“Of course it’s time for a committee to study ways to reform Congress,” said former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, Arizona Republican. “But realistically, such a committee won’t be created until early 2017, as the inevitable reaction to the more ‘basic’ reform that voters will try on their own — by voting against their own incumbents. So early in the next Congress, action will be taken as a preemptive measure for 2018.”

Conservatives generally regard gridlock as having the redeeming value of at least slowing, if only slightly, government growth and spending. But conservatives also agree that Congress has become habitually unable to assemble and digest the content of federal budgets and approve them on time. Congress lumps everything into omnibus spending proposals so voluminous that the trillions of dollars in the bills are for things the lawmakers who pass the stuff can’t possibly have read, let alone digested and approved with any real comprehension.

“A pillar of congressional control over federal spending is the budget process, or was the budget process,” said Mr. Johnson. “It doesn’t exist anymore. The submission of budget proposals by the executive usually occurs too late for serious consideration. Congress, which has primary budgeting responsibility, hasn’t adopted a budget in nine of the last 18 years and hasn’t produced a traditional bicameral budget agreement in the last five years.”

Who cares?

Well, if Congress adopted budgets, enacted appropriations and conducted oversight of federal programs, public trust in government would improve, Mr. Johnson argues.

“The Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress can fix what’s broken, but it has to do so in a disciplined, performance-based, bipartisan and bicameral process that is open to public scrutiny,” Mr. Johnson said. “The joint committee will be a means of accomplishing that goal, and maybe the only one.”

Despite reform spearheaded decades ago by then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Congress has not been able to retrieve the constitutionally intended power it has for decades been surrendering to what observers long have complained of as the “imperial” presidency. It’s only getting more imperial and less what the republic’s founders had in mind, said Congressional Institute President Mark Strand.

“President Obama appropriated money to subsidize insurance companies under the Affordable Care Act without Congress’ authorization,” Mr. Strand said. “Without congressional authority, he ordered federal employees not to enforce immigration laws.”

Mr. Obama also “put in place a nuclear deal with Iran by executive order rather than a congressionally ratified treaty and killed the Keystone Pipeline after the State Department approved it,” said Mr. Strand.

And despite repeated attempts at restructuring and reform, Congress has not been able to break the chokehold its leaders have over members when it comes to legislation. Giving rank-and-file members more authority and “input” isn’t that easy, however.

“The member-driven approach was championed by Newt when he was House speaker, then choked out of existence by [Democratic House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi and by [her Republican successor, John A.] Boehner,” said Mr. Hayworth. “Since House Speaker Paul Ryan considers himself the smartest guy on the Hill, don’t look for any return to member-driven reforms, unless both parties make some real changes in their current leadership teams.”

How long the republic can remain viable with public disapproval for its lawmakers growing larger than its approval is unknowable, but the institute argues something must be done.

The new poll found, for example, only 12 percent of voters like Congress’ performance, while a crushing 83 percent think it stinks.

In 2006, Congress’ approval rating stood at 27 percent, miserably low, but at least more than three times better than now. Back then, 66 percent of voters held their noses when asked about the performance of Congress in general in the same Winston Group research.

David Winston says his firm’s research finds that people think that because the press focuses on the negative and the overall legislative process is so difficult to understand, voters are not sure how to engage their members of Congress at critical moments. This creates additional hurdles for members to help shape the legislative process and legislation.

Meanwhile, the public is left with the impression lawmakers aren’t addressing what the people back home want or need. Some critics say the influence of members of Congress on their leaders is inversely proportional to lack of knowledge of the members’ constituents.

“Eight out of 10 voters don’t believe their voice is heard,” Mr. Winston said.

• Ralph Z. Hallow can be reached at rhallow@gmail.com.

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