Stakes are rising, and public disdain of Congress is right behind

July 19, 2011

The protracted debate over the national debt ceiling is still raw, angry and unresolved, but Congress has managed to achieve something significant this summer: It has found a way to become even more unpopular, recording historic levels of public disdain.

In a new Washington Post/ABC News poll, voters expressed more unhappiness with their own member of Congress than in any poll going back to 1989. Only 30 percent said they would vote to reelect their legislator; 63 percent, a new record, said they would look around for somebody else.

That news underscores one ironic consequence of the 2010 Republican takeover of the House. GOP leaders have argued that part of their aim is to increase public confidence in Congress by curbing irresponsible spending.

But the debt ceiling crisis has been a carnival of all the things that turn voters off — ideological grandstanding, political shouting matches, passing bills for show and a persistent unwillingness to compromise.

But now, the volume is louder and the stakes are higher.

“It’s like they’re getting a divorce,” said Consuelo Williams, a lawyer from Colorado Springs who was waiting for a Metro train at the McPherson Square station Tuesday. She meant that the two sides seemed to be fighting to hurt each other, not for the purpose of finding a good compromise. “We’re spending so much money fighting. We don’t need to be doing that.”

Dislike of Congress is, of course, an American tradition roughly as old as Congress itself. The legislature has seen its share of scoundrels and scandals, which never help, but even when Congress works as intended, that work is to argue in public.

“This country has come to feel the same when Congress is in session as we do when the baby gets hold of a hammer,” the humorist Will Rogers wrote in 1930.

But this year, there seems to be a lot more — and bigger — babies and a lot more hammers.

In a CBS News poll, a majority of Americans rejected the way that both parties were handling the debt crisis. A total of 58 percent disapproved of Democrats in Congress and 71 percent disapproved of Republicans in Congress, and in a Gallup Poll, only 12 percent of the public had at least “quite a lot” of confidence in Congress. That was just one point above the all-time low, set last summer.

For political scientists who have tried to study the reasons behind Americans’ distaste for Congress, this has been a fascinating summer.

“Oh God, yes,” said Jasmine Farrier, a professor at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. “Except, I’m just cowering in the corner,” she added, at the prospect that Congress’s problems will actually pitch the country into default.

In particular, academics say, the public seems to recoil at Congress’s protracted verbal wars. And this summer’s has been one of the most bitter.

Tuesday on the House floor, for instance, Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) raised his voice to denounce Democrats for demanding an end to certain tax loopholes. Those were small in comparison to the country’s deficit problems, and Cantor said it was an effort to “throw the shiny ball out there” as distraction.

“Will the gentleman yield?” Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) interrupted. Moments before, he had denounced a plan Cantor supported as “very sinister.”

“I will not yield!” Cantor said. He finished his speech, urging Democrats to “get serious and stop playing politics.”

At the end of the day, the House voted to approve a bill requiring wide-ranging spending caps and a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution. It is not expected to pass the Senate.

And even the best potential solution on the horizon appears likely to do little to improve Congress’s stature. That plan, proposed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), involves a convoluted legal arrangement that would allow President Obama to raise the debt ceiling without the approval of Congress.

“What is Congress good at?” Farrier said. “Because [one of] the most reasonable things on the table is a measure to get the power completely away from Congress.”

On Tuesday, several Republican freshmen claimed to understand that, collectively, they had just joined a club that was less popular than health-insurance companies and banks. “And Satan,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) He said the public should soon come to see the value of what Republicans are doing by pushing for sharp cuts to spending and the federal deficit. “If they don’t, they don’t. Look, Congress has never — probably in history — had a real strong popularity. That’s just the nature of it.”

Another freshman, Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.) said the public’s impression of Congress would improve if it passed a balanced-budget amendment. That, he said, would set limits to restrain what future legislators could spend.

“We can’t trust . . .” Barletta said, his voice trailing. Standing in one of the ornate rooms of the U.S. Capitol, wearing the gold pin that identified him as a member of Congress, Barletta seemed on the verge of a personal confession, that Congress couldn’t be trusted.

He was. “We can’t trust future Congresses,” he said. “Or even ourselves.”

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