First things first: The theme song of the week is the closing theme from The Jeffersons.
Poll of the week: A new Gallup poll shows that just 20% of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing. The vast majority, 75%, disapprove of the job Congress is doing.
The poll is in line with other polls showing most Americans are displeased with our federal legislative branch.
What’s the point: It’s a common refrain that Americans may not like what Congress overall is doing, but they like the job their own member of Congress is doing. Indeed, it’s true that approval for individual congressmen is almost always significantly higher than it is for either the House or Senate.
Still, I’m not sure we grasp just how awful the ratings for Congress are and how long they’ve been that way.
From 1974, when the Gallup data starts, to September 2009, the average approval rating for Congress in Gallup’s polling was 37%. That’s not good. President Donald Trump, who has been historically unpopular for a president, has had an average approval rating in the low 40s over the last year.
But that 37% is more than double the 17% average approval rating Americans have given Congress since September 2009.
It’s not just that the average has been low, though – it’s how consistent the low ratings have been.
You have to go back 10 years in Gallup data to find a single poll in which Congress’ approval rating was at 30% or above. That’s by far the longest stretch that Congress has had a sub-30% approval rating since polling on this began. Prior to this latest run, I couldn’t find a single stretch of four years or more in which there wasn’t a Gallup poll in which Congress’ approval rating was at least 30%.
The decline in congressional approval is almost certainly linked to the decline in trust of government in general. According to the Pew Research Center, only 17% of Americans currently trust government always or most of the time. That’s tied for a record low that also occurred in the last 10 years. And while trust in government has generally been on the decline since the Vietnam War, it’s never been that consistently bad. Since 2008, there hasn’t been a single poll in which trust in government has reached 30%, which is by far the longest stretch for this skepticism (very similar to the figures on congressional approval).
What’s amazing is that neither Congress’ approval rating nor trust in the government has rebounded in the past few years as the economy has gotten better. It shouldn’t have been too surprising that both measures fell below 30% (and often below 20%) following the Iraq War and financial crisis in the late 2000s. Usually, though, good economic times bring rises to both measures. Following dips in both measures during the first half of the 1990s, for example, they climbed back to greater than 40% during the dot-com bubble.
Congress’ low approval rating might help to partially explain the tumult we’ve seen in recent congressional elections. Every midterm since 2006 could be defined as a “wave.” House majorities have gone from Republican to Democratic (2006) to Republican (2010) and back to Democratic again (2018). The one midterm in which the House majority didn’t flip saw the Senate majority flip from Democratic to Republican (2014). And although presidential approval rating has a greater effect on midterm outcomes, congressional approval probably plays a role. It probably helps to explain the decreased benefit of being an incumbent in congressional elections, for example.
Another likely effect of low congressional approval and trust in government in general: Trump winning the presidency in 2016. He was able to capitalize on a “throw the bums out” attitude Americans had. This is something true for Republicans running for Congress, as well.
Interestingly, this doesn’t seem to be the case as much for Democrats. That could explain why Joe Biden is well out in front and why Democrats didn’t seem too interested in nominating outsiders in 2018.
Still, the overall inclination of candidates for federal office on both sides to run against Washington will likely remain. With record numbers of voters unhappy with what’s happening in our nation’s capital, how could it not?