A friend sends along a piece from The Fix (the Washington Post’s politics blog) noting that Congress is on pace so far in 2013 to tie it’s all-time low annual Gallup approval rating, a record it established last year with an approval rating of 15 percent. Here’s the Post’s chart of Gallup’s annual average of approval of Congress since it started asking the question in 1974′
It’s satisfying, I suppose, in a dark, twisted schadenfreudish way, to see approval ratings this low. As you probably know, most Americans give Congress a thumbs down but are much more likely to give their own congressman a thumbs up. And, since their own congressman is the only one they could vote out of office, the negative feeling toward Congress as a whole is perhaps not much more than an inchoate measure of how things are going in general in the country, and especially in the economy.
The last two times the Gallup number for congressional approval dipped below 20 percent coincided with the last two bad economies. To equate one’s feelings about Congress with the health of the economy is an interesting back-handed statement of what we think the main job of Congress is.
It’s also notable that, at least historically, presidents during these years have often had approval ratings above 50 percent and the Supreme Court has always had more approvers than disapprovers, suggesting that disapproval of Congress may serve as an expression of an amorphous grumpiness with life and “the situation” in general.
If you look at the chart above, you’ll note that in only one year over four decades has Congress managed an average annual approval rating above 50 percent. But if we look at that peak, it’s even more clear that approval of Congress often has little to do with either Congress or approval.
The year was 2001. In the months leading up to September 11, Congress having an unusually good year, approval ratings wise, with ratings that varied little, on a month-t0-month basis, in the 40s and the 50s. The low point of the year (approval of 42 percent) was actually a survey completed on September 10, 2001, when 42 percent of us told Gallup we approved of the job Congress was doing.
Then the planes hit the Twin Towers and, the next time Gallup asked the question, Congress had — by far — the highest rating in history: 84 percent of respondents approved the job Congress was doing.
Obviously, we’re talking about nothing more than what they call in the trade a “rally round the flag” effect. Perfectly understandable on a human basis, but further evidence that even though the question is “do you approve or disapprove of the way Congress is handling its job,” the answer sometimes has much less to do with Congress than you might assume.