The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Congress deeply unpopular again as gridlock on coronavirus relief has real-life consequences

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) waits while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) speak after the casket with the remains of Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) was carried from the U.S. Capitol building, in Washington, U.S., July 29, 2020.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) waits while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) speak after the casket with the remains of Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) was carried from the U.S. Capitol building, in Washington, U.S., July 29, 2020. (Pool/Reuters)
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After a springtime boomlet of bipartisan legislation, Congress has slid back into its familiar posture of hitting gridlock on everything from combating police violence to determining which statues should remain in the Capitol.

And, over the past two weeks, the heated negotiations over the next coronavirus relief package have stalled as President Trump’s advisers and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have openly feuded after each of their private huddles.

The public took notice.

Over the past two months congressional approval ratings have crashed downward, after a sudden previous bump in approval. Fewer than 1 in 5 voters say they like what lawmakers are doing on Capitol Hill, according to the Gallup Poll, which is the most consistent tracker of voter attitudes toward Congress.

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and press secretary Kayleigh McEnany spoke to reporters July 31 about negotiations for a new stimulus package. (Video: The Washington Post)

This five-month arc demonstrates that it doesn’t take a PhD in political science to figure out public attitudes toward the legislative body. When lawmakers are delivering results, even after some messy fights, voters warm up to Congress.

When the partisan disputes run into legislative deadlock, Americans recoil.

Pelosi defended the current standoff over the latest pandemic response as a legitimate clash of ideas over how to keep Americans safe and how to safely restart the economy, a logjam given the weight of the matters at hand.

“Why can’t they come to an agreement? We don’t have shared values. That’s just the way it is. So it’s not bickering. It’s standing our ground. We’re trying to find common ground,” Pelosi told reporters Friday.

Unemployed workers on July 22 rallied outside Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's house and the Capitol to demand an extension of the $600 relief payments. (Video: The Washington Post)

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

The next few weeks could determine whether Americans give Congress a second chance over its handling of the health and economic crises.

In early May, 31 percent of Americans approved of the job that the House and Senate were doing, the second straight month that Gallup recorded congressional job approval cresting 30 percent.

Those marked the first times since 2009 when at least 3 in 10 Americans approved of congressional job performance, a decade-long run of futility that fell well outside of historical norms.

Granted, 30 percent approval ratings are nothing to write home about, but it’s a lot better than the 18 percent of Americans who approved of Congress in Gallup’s poll from late July.

From the fall of 2009 until this April, Gallup conducted 125 polls on Congress, and only six times did at least 25 percent of Americans approve of what was happening under the Capitol dome.

What changed this spring?

Faced with matters of life and death, Congress got its act together and poured money into fighting the crisis.

That funding was both relevant to people’s daily lives and also won approval with overwhelming support from Democrats and Republicans.

It began March 5 with what seemed like a big bang: $8.3 billion directed toward the Department of Health and Human Services to help develop a vaccine and build out the supply of testing kits for the novel coronavirus.

The House approved the initial bill on a 415-to-2 vote, while the Senate had just one dissenting vote.

Trump advisers and congressional leaders, realizing how quickly the virus was upending life, turned to a “phase two” package that included unemployment benefits, encouraging paid sick leave and other modest proposals. Nine days after the first bill passed, the House voted 353-to-40 to approve that package, which by March 18 had 90 votes in the Senate for its approval.

By then most of the nation had been virtually shut down, from schools to businesses, as the virus brought life to a halt, and by March 27 both chambers had approved the Cares Act.

Worth more than $2 trillion, that legislation served as the financial equivalent of the Berlin airlift — pouring tens of billions of dollars here and there into hospital funds, a new $600 weekly stipend to unemployment benefits, a stabilization fund for industries that had been all but shuttered.

Out of whole cloth, lawmakers created the Paycheck Protection Program, designed to give small businesses grants if they kept workers on their payroll.

And it was done with overwhelming support, not even a formally recorded vote in the House and a unanimous roll call in the Senate. Lawmakers patted themselves on the back after having spent the fall and winter battling over the Democratic attempt to impeach Trump.

“The Senate has pivoted from one of the most contentious partisan periods in the nation’s history to passing this rescue package 100 to nothing,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters after passing the Cares Act.

Born-again fiscal conservatives are sign of Trump’s weakening hand in Congress

A March 30 Gallup poll showed 77 percent of Americans approved of the massive infusion of relief funds, and by mid-April the PPP program had run dry, so Congress passed a $484 billion package to replenish that and provided targeted small business relief, again passing the Senate without a recorded vote and only a handful of opposition in the House.

Over seven weeks lawmakers came together to pass four major pieces of legislation, approaching a $3 trillion price tag, with heated debates but, ultimately, sweeping bipartisan approval.

Sure, like the airlift of the late 1940s, some PPP grants ended up in the accounts of corporations less deserving than the family-run pizza place, but even conservative estimates suggest it might have saved more than 13 million jobs.

For the first time in years, the public saw Congress not just debating and arguing about a crisis, but actually coming together and passing important relief that connects with their everyday lives.

What happened this summer?

Those debates and arguments returned to gridlock.

Two weeks after George Floyd died at the hands of Minneapolis police, Democrats introduced legislation designed to combat police brutality and make it easier for law enforcement to face criminal and civil punishment.

Soon after Republicans offered their bill, and for a few days in June, both parties talked about reaching a broad compromise on an issue that had galvanized the nation and led to mass protests, shifting public opinion in ways that pollsters rarely see.

That optimism quickly faded.

The House, run by Democrats, approved its more expansive legislation while the Senate, run by Republicans, ended debate after Democrats filibustered the GOP proposal.

The issue has left center stage in the Capitol and no one expects it to return to the agenda.

In the Gallup poll, Democrats suffered the largest drop in approval, from 39 percent in May to 20 percent in late July.

That fruitless debate led into another bitterly partisan showdown over a fifth pandemic crisis legislative package that pushed passed Friday’s deadline — that means the enhanced unemployment benefits have expired and a moratorium on evictions has lapsed.

Some Republicans have questioned whether Washington needs to send out more money as real-life consequences have run into congressional intransigence, sending its approval right back into the gutter.

Pelosi held out hope that the process, while ugly, could still produce a final product that would win passage. It’s unclear whether the public will be as supportive this time.

“So we anticipate that we will have a bill, but we’re not there yet,” she said.

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