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Congress’ low approval rating isn’t really just about Congress

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.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 08/16/2013 - 08:43 am.

    Low Ratings

    I agree that the low ratings are about more than Congress. Right now the entire government seems out of control. The NSA is operating like a rogue agency, hiding info from congressional oversight. We don’t know if the President knows what is happening there or if they’re hiding things from him too. The Justice Dept is lying about investigations. The IRS is blatantly putting their thumbs on the scales when trying to figure out how to tax people. In comparison, the revolving door between Congress and lobbying almost seems like a quaint problem.
    This isn’t the government that the people asked for. Is there any way to get back to that?

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/20/2013 - 10:01 am.

    I suspect

    that you’d be happier with a Philosopher King.
    Democracy has always been dirty (see Churchill, W).
    As for the IRS favoring conservative political action groups masquerading as charities, this is a minor glitch in the system; the price of allowing income tax credit for activities deemed socially valuable.

    As for the NSA — there’s a basic conundrum here.
    If Congerspersons know what the NSA is doing, its operations will not be secret.
    That may be good: it is possible that the best way to deal with secret terrorist activities is to be as much unlike them as possible. However, I doubt that most Americans would agree with this.

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