The Washington Post

Few Americans think Congress is doing good job

In the world of public opinion polling, they have become as hard to spot as black birds on a dark night — Americans who think Congress is doing a good job.

After a year of partisan gridlock and a series of intensely public showdowns, poll after poll shows that the legislative branch has never been more unpopular. In a recent Washington Post-ABC News survey, only 14 percent of respondents said they approved of how Congress is handling its business.

And here’s the kicker: Many of them said they don’t even like Congress all that much.

“I think [lawmakers] really struggle, but I think they probably do as good a job as they can. And I guess that’s probably an approval,” said Stan Cameron, 72, of Billiard, Ohio, a retired cattleman who counts himself among the 14 percent.

Only 3 percent of those who approve of Congress said they do so strongly.

And it is a further sign of the public’s low esteem for the institution that even its biggest fans think not a whole lot is getting done there. Unease about that inertia suggests that Congress will enter an election year facing an unsettled and unpredictable electorate that is little pleased with either party.

More than a dozen interviews this week suggest that the genus Congress Approver is largely made up of two species: those who don’t mind Washington at a stalemate and those who haven’t really noticed it.

The first group is composed of conservatives who embrace the gridlock as a sign that the new Republican majority is standing up to a Democratic president they think is on the wrong track.

“It’s easy to say [lawmakers] should compromise,” said Sherran Whatley, 73, who lives in Washington state. “But if you do that, you’re not standing for what you believe in. When it comes to politics, and when it comes to a time when we’re in such dire straits, there are lines to be drawn.”

Those who applaud the Republican-controlled House say its members are following through on their promises to cut government spending, even if it means a fight. They are frustrated that polls don’t show more of their fellow Americans, who elected the new majority only a year ago, embracing the results.

They also blame what they consider hostile media for driving the narrative of the unpopular Congress.

“Congress is supposed to be a mess and all screwed up in times of transition, when you have one party in control of one chamber and the other in control of the other. It’s supposed to be a brawl,” said Eric Briggs, 40, a financial adviser from West Richland, Wash., who cheered the GOP’s fighting spirit. “But people just don’t want to hear fighting. They just want everyone to get along and for it to be happy and work out.”

In the second group of Congress Approvers are glass-half-full types who cheerfully acknowledge that they don’t follow politics closely and don’t want to pass judgment on what they don’t know.

“I’m not really up on Congress. I have no qualms with them,” said Roxanne Kidwell, 58.

Kidwell lost her job at a Cincinnati grocery store in 2007 and spends most of her time trying to figure out how to go back to school while she and her husband survive on the Social Security disability checks he has received since he was injured on the job as a painting contractor.

“They’re doing okay,” Kidwell, a Democrat who backed Barack Obama but said she probably will vote for a Republican next year, said of lawmakers. “It’s not a great answer. But I quit following politics.”

Most people who don’t pay close attention to Washington appear to have still concluded that it’s broken.

On “The Daily Show,” the few Americans who have positive things to say about Congress were recently satirized as wide-eyed optimists, willing to give high marks to just about anything.

The program introduced James Schmool, a fan of Congress who said he didn’t mind being crammed into the back seat of a taxicab, gave high marks to a much-maligned new Spider-Man musical on Broadway, and said both political parties and the public came out well at the end of the summer’s bruising battle over whether to raise the nation’s debt ceiling.

In fact, interviews suggest that those who approve of Congress are not especially cheerier than other Americans.

Pat Haller of Carson City, Nev., said she somewhat approves of Congress after telling a pollster that she supports the Democrats who control of the Senate but fears what she considers an extremist element of the Republican Party in the House.

Terry Locklear of Garland, Tex., landed in the approval category after responding that Congress wasn’t doing a great job but that members were at least standing up to Democrats and Obama.

Forty-two percent of those who said they approve of Congress called themselves Democrats, a slightly higher number than those who said they were Democrats among all adults interviewed. Twenty-four percent said they were Republicans, and 33 percent characterized themselves as independents.

That may be surprising, given that Obama has clashed repeatedly with lawmakers and that he has made clear he plans to use Congress as a foil in his reelection campaign next year.

But the figures could stem from widespread confusion about who even controls things in Congress. Fewer than four in 10 adults in a Pew poll last spring knew that Republicans had a majority in the House, including 33 percent of Democrats.

In interviews with those who approve of Congress, the same divides emerge that splinter the rest of the country and Congress itself.

There is a final group of people who offer qualified support for Congress. They are like Massachusetts resident Brenda Macdonald, 69, who said she doesn’t like what she hears out of Washington. But, she added, lawmakers can hardly be blamed. After all, she said, the people elected them.

“You reap what you sow,” she said. “Maybe we deserve it.”

Rosalind Helderman is a political enterprise and investigations reporter for the Washington Post.
Scott Clement is the polling manager at The Washington Post, specializing in public opinion about politics, election campaigns and public policy.

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