Wonkbook: The least popular Congress in history

at 08:06 AM ET, 12/20/2011

Congress is ending the year with an approval rating of 11 percent. That's the lowest they've dipped in the 30 years that Gallup has been asking Americans to rate them. And this isn't some one-time drop. As Gallup notes, it's been going on all year: "This earns Congress a 17% yearly average for 2011, the lowest annual congressional approval rating in Gallup history."

That's all the more extraordinary because 2011 hosted a new congress following a wave election. Tired of Democrats, Americans ushered in Republicans. Tired of career politicians, they opted, in many districts, for outsiders. Tired of establishment Republicans, they looked for Tea Party conservatives. Fast forward a year and Americans are tired, historically tired, of this Congress, too.

Part of that is the grinding recovery from the financial crisis, of course. But check the headline leading the Washington Post today: "House Republicans intent on killing Senate payroll tax cut deal." That sort of thing isn't helping. And, increasingly, I'm hearing from sources who think the payroll tax really might expire, at least for a month or two. That's really not going to help. That's when the 112th Congress stops being bad at its job and becomes an active impediment to the recovery. That's when it literally begins taking money out of people's paychecks because Republicans refused to extend a tax cut -- a tax cut! -- unless they also got an oil pipeline.

This sort of gridlock is bad for the president, too, of course. Obama's job approval, according to Gallup, is 42 percent. That's low. If the Republican strategy is to break Washington so badly that voters want to throw everyone out, they're well on their way. But there are a lot of incumbent Republicans included in that "everyone." Right now, InTrade gives Democrats a 30 percent chance of retaking the House in 2012. If money begins disappearing from paychecks next month, expect that to skyrocket. It will be, for ordinary voters, the most painful in a long list of failures that includes August's debt-ceiling debacle, March's near-government shutdown, and, by November 2012, any number of other items. That's going to be a hard record for majority legislators to get reelected on.

For a year now, House Republicans, working off their experience in 2010, have legislated as if they have more to fear from conservative primary challenges than from the frustrated, moderate voters who decide many general elections. That strategy has left them the most disliked Congress in the history of polling. If they keep it up for another 11 months, they may well come to learn they were wrong.

Top stories

1) The House GOP is set to kill the payroll tax deal, report Rosalind Helderman, Paul Kane, and Felicia Sonmez: "House Republicans were gearing up to ditch a bipartisan Senate bill on Tuesday that would extend a federal payroll tax holiday for two months, charging that the deal represented the old ways of doing business that they were elected to change. For the first time in a month of partisan sparring over the tax break, neither party appeared confident that the issue would be resolved, averting a January tax increase for 160 million American workers...Senate Democrats accused House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and his leadership team of walking away from the deal as a capitulation to tea-party elements and said they had no plans to reopen talks. They said that if the House rejects a deal that was adopted in the Senate on an 89 to 10 vote, it would amount to nixing the tax cut."

@NoamScheiber: "GOP making policy argument, and a good one for a change. Sen Dems making a process--we had a deal!--which no one outside DC cares about."

2) The leadership-driven negotiating process is drawing criticism, reports Manu Raju: "Moments before approving a payroll tax cut, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told his colleagues about his deal with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell: 'We started this conversation alone and we ended it alone.' Indeed, legislating in the historically unpopular 112th Congress has often degenerated into secretive negotiations between Senate leaders and House Speaker John Boehner, leaving virtually every other member of Congress on the outside looking in. Lawmakers ranging from powerful committee chairmen down to the lowest-ranking freshmen tend to complain that their party leaders have cut them out of the process as the divided Congress has lurched from crisis to crisis in a messy year of legislating."

3) Europe has to raise $500 billion early next year, reports Howard Schneider: "European governments and banks will be competing to raise hundreds of billions of dollars from investors in the next few months, European Central Bank President Mario Draghi warned Monday, saying the financing squeeze could help push the region into a new recession. Draghi said that governments and banks in the euro zone have about $500 billion in outstanding bonds coming due in the first three months of 2012. Many of these notes will have to be refinanced with new loans...European banks already have been curtailing loans to businesses and individuals in response to the region’s debt crisis, contributing to a slowdown in the euro-area economy...Draghi’s remarks, combined with the release of the ECB’s annual financial stability review, portray a region still unable to tackle its problems."

4) The Supreme Court will hear the health reform case in March, reports Jess Bravin: "Supreme Court arguments over President Barack Obama's health-care overhaul will stretch over three days, beginning March 26, the court said Monday. A typical case is allotted an hour for argument, but the court scheduled five and a half hours for the health-care case, reflecting how novel some of the questions are and the importance of a dispute that could define the limits of federal power for decades to come. The main part will take place on Tuesday, March 27, with a two-hour argument over the minimum-coverage provision, which starting in 2014 will require most Americans to carry health insurance or pay a penalty...At the March 28 morning session, the court will hear a 90-minute morning argument over which portions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act...can survive if the individual-insurance mandate is struck down."

Top op-eds

1) Europe's crisis isn't due to Greek laziness, writes Matthew Yglesias: "It’s true that Germans and Greeks work very different amounts, but not in the way you expect. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the average German worker put in 1,429 hours on the job in 2008. The average Greek worker put in 2,120 hours. In Spain, the average worker puts in 1,647 hours. In Italy, 1,802. The Dutch, by contrast, outdo even their Teutonic brethren in laziness, working a staggeringly low 1,389 hours per year...The truth is that countries aren’t rich because their people work hard. When people are poor, that’s when they work hard...It’s completely backward to suggest that extraordinary feats of effort are the way individuals or countries get to the top of the ladder. On the national level the reverse happens--the richer Germans get, the less they work."

2) Premium support would make Medicare more risky for seniors, writes Jonathan Cohn: "In traditional Medicare, seniors are not at huge risk if health care gets expensive more quickly than anticipated....While seniors might see higher cost-sharing and premiums, they'd still get their benefits. Most premium support proposals would flip that guarantee on its head, putting individual seniors at much greater risk. If the cost of medical care rose faster than the value of the vouchers, seniors would simply have to cope with less coverage...Wyden would dispute the analysis above. He believes that the proposal he crafted with Ryan is different - that it would shield individual seniors from higher risk, through a series of consumer protections...Do Ryan and other leading Republicans believe those protections are even necessary?"

3) Fannie and Freddie didn't cause the housing crash, writes Joe Nocera: "Over at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, two resident scholars, Peter Wallison and Edward Pinto, have concocted what has since become a Republican meme: namely, that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were ground zero for the entire crisis, leading the private sector off the cliff with their affordable housing mandates and massive subprime holdings. The truth is the opposite: Fannie and Freddie got into subprime mortgages, with great trepidation, only in 2005 and 2006, and only because they were losing so much market share to Wall Street. Among other things, the Wallison-Pinto case relies on inflated data -- Pinto classifies just about anything that is not a 30-year-fixed mortgage as 'subprime.' The reality is that Fannie and Freddie followed the private sector off the cliff instead of the other way around."

4) Federal support is behind the shale gas boom, write Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus: "Many often point to the shale gas revolution as evidence that the private sector, in response to market forces, is better than government bureaucrats at picking technological winners. It’s a compelling story, one that pits inventive entrepreneurs against slow-moving technocrats and self-dealing politicians. The problem is, it isn’t true. The breakthroughs that revolutionized the natural gas industry -- massive hydraulic fracturing, new mapping tools and horizontal drilling -- were made possible by the government agencies that critics insist are incapable of investing wisely in new technology...While details vary, the story is basically the same for nuclear power, natural gas turbines, solar panels, and wind turbines -- pretty much every significant energy technology since World War II."

Psychedelic soul interlude: The Temptations play "I Can't Next to You" on Top of the Pops.

Got tips, additions, or comments? E-mail me.

Still to come: The head of the IMF wants non-European nations to pitch in; the Supreme Court's health care hearing schedule is set; AT&T is throwing in the towel on its merger with T-Mobile; how the payroll tax deal's Keystone provision would affect Obama's decision-making is unclear; and a monkey does the dishes.

Economy

IMF head Christine Lagarde wants non-European nations to come the continent's rescue, reports Howard Schneider: "International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde is calling on countries outside Europe to help battle the region’s financial crisis, warning that the debt problems could drag down nations elsewhere by spilling over into global trade and international bank lending. 'International support, solidarity, needs to be present,' Lagarde said in an interview last week assessing her first six months at the International Monetary Fund, a period of mounting turmoil in Europe...Lagarde’s comments come as the agency undertakes a sensitive discussion about how to boost the emergency funding it can provide Europe without seeming to underwrite this relatively wealthy part of the world. Many officials, including some in the Obama administration, argue that Europe can afford to tend to its own problems. Lagarde has not said how much more funding she would like the agency to make available to Europe."

The proposed Volcker rule is both too strong and too weak, writes Tom Braithwaite: "Bank regulators rightly concluded that this intuitive approach wouldn’t work when it came to drawing up the ban on proprietary trading now known as the Volcker Rule, which is due to go into force in July next year. Instead, they have come up with a complex network of metrics..The problem is that even with the regulators’ raft of tools, it is still difficult to distinguish between banks’ soon-to-be banned buying and selling for their own account and 'market making', the permitted buying and selling on behalf of customers...Equally, though, there is one area where regulators could be tougher. The proposed Volcker Rule focuses on short-term trading as if this presents the most dangerous activity, ignoring the fact that big, long-term illiquid bets can cause the most harm."

Not-purple monkey dishwasher interlude: A monkey does the dishes (via).

Health Care

The administration's "essential benefits" decision isn't drawing any ire, reports Jason Millman: "The Obama administration’s first crack at defining minimum health benefits did exactly what consumer groups hoped it wouldn’t do: It gave states a choice of 'benchmark' plans rather than spelling out the details. But the administration seems to have pulled it off -- because there was no backlash to be found from groups that championed the law. The 15-page guidance on health care reform’s essential benefits wasn’t as specific as consumer groups might have liked, and it might have lacked the specific directives that states have been clamoring for. But in the aftermath of the guidance’s release Friday, nobody took the sky-is-falling position. The guidance was just the first formal indication of the approach the Department of Health and Human Services will take on the essential benefits package."

HHS has rejected another waiver request, reports Sam Baker: "The Health and Human Services Department on Monday denied a sixth state’s request for an adjustment to certain rules under the new healthcare law. HHS rejected Michigan’s request for an adjustment to the law’s medical loss ratio (MLR) requirements. The law requires insurance plans for individuals to meet an 80 percent MLR, meaning they must spend 80 percent of their premiums on medical costs. Only the remaining 20 percent can go toward profits and administrative costs. Michigan had asked HHS to gradually phase in that standard over the next three years. But the department said Monday that most insurers in the state are either profitable enough to meet the 80 percent standard immediately or are adjusting their business practices to get there."

Domestic Policy

AT&T is abandoning its merger with T-Mobile, reports Cecilia Kang: "AT&T on Monday ended its pursuit of T-Mobile, bowing to government opposition to the $39 billion deal that would have created the nation’s biggest mobile provider of phone and Internet service. The companies agreed to end last-ditch negotiations to restructure their merger and win over leery antitrust officials. As a penalty, AT&T will hand to T-Mobile’s parent, Deutsche Telekom, $4 billion worth of cash and other assets. With greater threats coming from competitor Verizon, AT&T vowed it would continue a decade-long push to bulk up its business. It continued to disagree with concerns by regulators that the deal would have hurt consumers and led to less competition. AT&T chief executive Randall Stephenson said regulators should 'allow the free markets to work.'"

A proposed reform could defang the FCC, reports Eliza Krigman: "The campaign by congressional Republicans for “process reform” at the Federal Communications Commission is as much about lawmakers wanting to handcuff the commission as it is about how the agency operates...House Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.), is the author of legislation to overhaul how the commission operates. While it’s true that Walden’s proposal would make the FCC more transparent -- preventing last-minute 'data dumps' before controversial votes, for instance -- the proposal also would undeniably make it a lot harder for the FCC to regulate the telecom industry. The GOP reforms would have reduced the odds of getting net neutrality rules passed. And the agency would have far less leeway to restrict -- or in the case of AT&T/T-Mobile, reject -- big telecom mergers."

Republicans are warning Obama on recess appointments, reports Byron Tau: "All 47 Senate Republicans have signed a letter to President Obama warning him against making recess appointments for the two open seats on the National Labor Relations Board...The letter, spearheaded by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), is in response to the president's formal withdrawal of Craig Becker, a union-backed attorney who was appointed last year during a congressional recess. Obama nominated Sharon Block and Richard Griffin to the two open slots, while a third GOP-backed nominee has been held up in committee. The NLRB has emerged as a partisan battleground during President Obama's term in the fight over government regulations and the right to organize. Labor advocates have noted that with Becker's departure as an interim member of the board, it will lose quorum and the right to mediate disputes."

Adorable children who think they're people interlude: This little girl thinks she's a grown-up with a job.

Energy

It's unclear how Obama will act if the Keystone provision of the payroll tax deal takes effect, reports Darren Samuelsohn: "If Republicans get their way, President Barack Obama, right around Valentine’s Day, could have to weigh in for the second time in about three months on permitting the Keystone XL pipeline that divides his environmental and labor bases. Obama can veto the 1,700-mile oil pipeline by ruling it’s not in the national interest, but that move would expose him to charges from the GOP and deep-pocketed industry groups that he cares more about greens than the economy. For a White House sensitive to economic concerns, it’s not exactly an ideal scenario as it shifts into reelection mode...Said Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.): 'They’re not going to approve it in this tight time frame. So they actually killed the pipeline. Congratulations, Republicans.'"

Wonkbook is compiled and produced with help from Dylan Matthews and Michelle Williams.

 
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