Growing Disapproval of Congress and government

(Photo by Lergik)

Gallup’s recent Ethics survey showed how low opinions of Congress have fallen.

In late August, a Rassmussen survey suggested that 57% of Americans would prefer getting rid of all Congresspersons and re-electing a new slate.

In a Pew survey from November, 2009: “About About half (52%) of registered voters would like to see their own representative re-elected next year, while 34% say that most members of Congress should be re-elected. Both measures are among the most negative in two decades of Pew Research surveys.”

Of course, there is always a strange discrepancy here:  Americans say that Congress is terrible, but most Americans think highly (or at least more highly) of their OWN representative.  [For example, a 2006 FOX poll found that 27% approve of Congress’ performance but 53% approve of their own representative’s performance.] And more than 90% of Congresspersons are re-elected each year.

Between 1980 and 1994 net ratings of own representative (% approve minus % disapprove) ranged from 40 to 60 points positive (with highs in 1984 and 1988). Net ratings of Congress ranged from 20 points positive to almost -40.  The trends in both net ratings (Congress and own representative) have been sharply down since 1988.  (See “Great Theatre: The American Congress in the 1990s.”)  See also recent NY Times poll (4/10) that showed 17% approving of Congress and 73% disapproving (or a net approval of -56); this was even stronger among Tea Party sympathizers where net approval of their representative was -9 percentage points and net approval of Congress was -95 (1% approved and 96% disapproved).

Since 1994, net approval ratings have fallen further.  For example, polls by Gallup and FOX in late 2008 had negative net ratings of Congress of -60 (generally with approval rates in teens and disapproval rates in the -70s).   For some of these trends, see here.  Net approval ratings of one’s own Congressperson fell to the high twenties or low thirties by 2006/2007 (in ABC/Washington Post polls).  But a most recent NY Times poll conducted of the general public (in conjunction with a poll on Tea Party sympathizers), found that 46% approved of the job of their representative versus 36% that disapproved.

How is it possible that most Congresspeople are highly rated by constituents but the collective body is poorly rated?  Few bad apples.  Everyone doing a relatively job of representing their constituents but relatively few putting national priorities ahead of their parochial interests.  Ratings are lower for individuals who they just don’t know.  Political parties as an institution are more interested in making other party look bad (to increase number of seats in the next election) than in getting things done.  Increasing role of special interests, PACs, lobbyists.  And the decline of the numbers of moderates in Congress (as articulated by Mo Fiorina and McCarty/Poole/Rosenthal) are decreasingly enabling Congress to find important middle ground.

And this is the graph over time of trust of government from Pew Surveys (darker blue line), which staged a resurgence from 1996-2001 but has been declining steadily since then, and is now at a near all time low.

Figure

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