WASHINGTON – Chet Putek,53,wasn’t laughing because he’d heard an especially funny joke. He was laughing because he’d been asked what he thought of Congress.
After quelling his laughter,Putek,a painter and maintenance worker at Wayne State University in Detroit who was visiting the Capitol Visitors Center,said he could “talk for quite a bit” about what he sees wrong with the legislative body.
“Lately,I don’t believe that they are working more for the people than themselves,” Putek said. “There’s a disconnect between helping people and,say,helping the banks.”
Putek isn’t alone in feeling a very real discontent with Congress. A Gallup poll from late March shows congressional approval at a dismal 12 percent.
“In general,in recent months,congressional approval has been the lowest in Gallup’s history,” Frank Newport,editor in chief of Gallup,said in a phone interview. “The all-time low was 10 percent in February of this year.”
To put that in context,Newport compared it to the general malaise felt in 1979 during the economic woes under President Jimmy Carter and to the 1992 recession under President George H.W. Bush.
But what stands out,Newport said,is how Congress’ poll numbers seems to be stuck in a rut,even as Americans are more satisfied with the direction the country is going.
“A lot of our measures,like overall satisfaction,economic consumer confidence and Obama’s approval are all going up,but Congress’ approval is not,” Newport said. “Americans appear to be very,very disgusted with Congress in general,and the rising tide,so to speak,that is lifting some boats is not lifting the congressional boat.”
Gallup is not the only polling company finding such dismal numbers. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll from December showed 42 percent of respondents rating Congress as “one of the worst.” An additional 33 percent rated it as below average.
Neither party fared well in a September CNN/ORC poll. More than half – 56 percent – said Republican policies were moving the country in the wrong direction,and 53 percent said the same of Democrats.
While Congress may be a victim of outside circumstances,for example the economy,it is certainly suffering from its own actions.
“The economy affects everything,” Newport said. But he pointed to the debt ceiling fight last year as something of Congress’ own making that dragged its numbers down.
“Sometimes a team wins because of their coach,and sometimes the team wins and it has very little to do with the coach,” Newport said.
There is a path out of the hole,Newport said.
“If I were talking to Congress,I’d say ‘You want to improve your ratings,compromise,’” Newport said. “We have found in our data is that Americans feel strongly that Congress should compromise.”
But compromise might be impossible in the current climate.
Rep. Charles Gonzalez,D-Texas,argued that the way the committee process plays out causes the divisions in Congress that lead to such low numbers.
“The obsession of either maintaining the majority or retaking the majority and predicating everything on that really just makes it campaign season on the floor of the House,” Gonzalez,who is retiring after seven terms in Congress,said.
Gonzalez said,“There is a way to make us all relevant in the legislative process,which is not happening at the committee level.”
Gonzalez said he recognizes that “as the minority,it’s not your bill,there can still be some input from the minority.”
That needs to change,he said,because for the first time,he sees a “spillover” effect of institutional dissatisfaction on individual members.
“We are reaching a point where they’re starting to feel the consequences of such low approval ratings,” Gonzalez said. “That is now in a way filtering down to where it is impacting how people perceive even their members of Congress.”
Norman J. Ornstein,a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute,disputes there’s a spillover to individual members of Congress.
“The question there is whether anything involved there actually changes the behavior and changes the outcomes,” Ornstein said. “That I don’t see.”
Gonzalez said compromise is important,but the dynamics are difficult at the constituent level. He used the example of a student and federal financial aid.
“The compromise was to reduce the amount of Pell Grants to students or the amount of money to students on federal student loans. And they’ll go,‘I want you to compromise,but don’t compromise on that,’” Gonzalez said.
Ornstein also pointed to voters.
“Voters put in place members of Congress that don’t compromise and then later whine that they don’t compromise,” Ornstein said.
Debbi Wilson,48,an adviser to oil and gas companies in Texas,was visiting the Capitol Visitor Center this week with her husband Ed,61.
She said voters aren’t informed enough about the importance of Congress.
“Congress is the house that holds the power,” she said. “So it’s very important who we put in there.”
Her husband,a retired law enforcement officer and loss prevention specialist,said the education system is failing in teaching young Americans the importance of Congress.
“It starts with public education at the high school and earlier levels,” he said. “History,government and just plain old American civics.”
The political troubles of Congress become all the more important because Congress is “where all the grunt work is,” Debbi Wilson said.
And even doing that grunt work may become more difficult. Gonzalez said Congress’ negative image could make it difficult to attract talented staffers,without whom Congress can’t function.
“You’re working for an institution that,when people discover you work for that institution,they don’t have a favorable opinion of where you work. You’re not going to be appreciated,” Gonzalez said.
The political gridlock and dysfunction of Congress can also negatively affect the economy.
A January survey of 10,000 business leaders by the Harvard Business School said the problems in the political system are negatively affecting economic competiveness.
“Members should be cognizant of just how low our approval is,” Gonzalez said. “It’s not a good thing for the country at large.”
Reach reporter Frank Bumb at [email protected] or 202-326-9871. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.