The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Americans warm to a long-despised Congress after it sends direct help to millions

The advocacy group MoveOn along with other organizations display signs that read #GetUsPPE, along images of health care workers, a call for personal protective equipment for health care workers during the coronavirus outbreak, on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol, Friday, April 17, 2020, in Washington.
The advocacy group MoveOn along with other organizations display signs that read #GetUsPPE, along images of health care workers, a call for personal protective equipment for health care workers during the coronavirus outbreak, on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol, Friday, April 17, 2020, in Washington. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Despite a cratering economy driven by a global health crisis, American voters have shown signs they are warming to something they have long despised: Congress.

Buried inside a survey showing bad grades for President Trump’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak, Thursday’s Gallup Poll contained a remarkable nugget showing approval ratings for Congress had jumped by a net gain of 16 percentage points in the past month.

Some 30 percent of adults approved of Congress’s job performance, ending a more than decade-long run of ignominious distinction for occupants of the Capitol. Not since the earliest days of Barack Obama’s presidency have at least 3 in 10 Americans approved of how Congress did its work.

To be clear, Congress has not suddenly become popular: 66 percent of adults still do not approve of the efforts of the House and Senate. Last year, when Gallup tested voter confidence in 15 public institutions ranging from the military to television news, Congress finished dead last.

And this is one poll that might be a momentary blip, so political analysts are hesitant to predict the outcome of congressional elections in such an unprecedented, volatile environment.

But the bump in congressional popularity is significant both because of who conducted the poll and because of its timing, possibly pointing the way for lawmakers to understand that voters will reward them for legislation that improves their lives.

“It’s likely no coincidence that Congress’s highest approval rating in more than a decade comes on the heels of the bipartisan rescue package, which had strong support among all political party identification groups,” said Justin McCarthy, the analyst who wrote the study.

Coronavirus spares no one, as lawmakers who endured harrowing ordeals can attest

Gallup has tested the job performance of Congress every month since 1998, and before that surveyed congressional approval ratings several times a year as far back as 1990.

Its data has been remarkably consistent. In early September 2009, 31 percent of adults approved of Congress.

In the next 125 monthly surveys, congressional approval hit at least 25 percent just six times, never reaching the 30 percent mark until this past week.

The boomlet is coming from an unexpected pocket of voters, according to McCarthy, who found that 33 percent of independents approved of Congress, up from 21 percent in March.

It’s the very rare moment when independent voters have a higher appreciation for the House and Senate than self-identified Democrats and Republicans.

Some lawmakers are not surprised.

Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.) has spent the past month at home working with constituents. The Cares Act, which provided a $2 trillion boost to the health system and the economy, is something that voters are feeling directly in their lives, having won bipartisan support without any formal opposition in the House or Senate.

The new Paycheck Protection Program, run through the Small Business Administration, had a rocky rollout as the normally sleepy government agency and the banks could not handle the influx of businesses with fewer than 500 employees seeking grants to keep workers on their payroll. By Thursday the SBA ran out of funding authority, but the demand remains intense.

“PPP is the most popular program Congress has created in decades,” McHenry, who entered the House in 2005, said Friday.

Some Democrats who won longtime GOP seats in 2018 began to feel political heat and called for replenishing the new program without any of the demands that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had been pushing.

“This is unacceptable. Leaders in both parties need to stop the partisan bickering and get more funding to this critical program — our workers and small businesses depend on it,” Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kan.) tweeted.

In fact, one reason for the relative bump in congressional popularity is probably that the partisan bickering has largely disappeared. Congress has been on a public-safety-mandated break since passing the Cares Act in late March.

Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) still do regular TV news interviews from their homes in San Francisco and Brooklyn, while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has stayed in Washington and gives periodic speeches during his chamber’s brief pro forma sessions.

All three use these moments to throw partisan grenades, but those tend to get lost in daily news cycles dominated by briefings from Trump and governors in hot-spot states, particularly New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D).

“The spotlight is off Congress and fixed instead on governors and President Trump,” said Amy Walter, an independent analyst for the Cook Political Report. “That means we see less of the partisan political food fights on Capitol Hill.”

Congress operates like a college, making a return to regular order complicated

Several rank-and-file lawmakers, most working from home like many of their constituents, said they have never worked harder as direct advocates for local hospitals and businesses, trying to cut through the bureaucratic mazes to help those hurt by a crisis that has hit every town in America.

In March, 42 percent of adults were satisfied with the country’s direction, according to Gallup. That was the second-highest right-track recording since 2006. This month just 30 percent are satisfied with the country’s direction.

Such a perilous drop in voter attitudes would normally lead to antipathy toward Congress.

In the recession of the early 1990s, congressional approval ratings dropped below 30 percent, bottoming out at 18 percent in March 1992.

By the mid-1990s, as the U.S. economy took off, Congress went on a decade-long run of relative popularity — from January 1998 through February 2005, Gallup registered just three monthly polls with approval ratings below 40 percent.

Even as the House impeached a very popular president in December 1998, Bill Clinton, 56 percent of voters approved of the job done by Congress.

The Great Recession of the late 2000s served as a breaking point from which Congress never really recovered. In October 2008, as Congress approved a $700 billion bailout of Wall Street firms, just 18 percent of Americans approved of the work on Capitol Hill.

Over the next 11 years, voters generally despised Congress. When one party seized the majority of the House or Senate, its partisans would briefly appreciate Congress and push approval ratings over 25 percent, before they sank back down to about 20 percent.

Congress seemed to govern from crisis to crisis, from budget showdowns that led to government shutdowns to oversight investigations of the Obama and Trump administrations that excited the partisans but left many voters wondering whether Congress cared about them.

Now, during a crisis that Congress did not start, some voters are looking to the Capitol for solutions, not partisan antics.

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