Monday, December 20, 2010

Yes, We Hate Congress

I recommend an excellent essay from political scientist Josh Huder about why Congress is so unpopular, both in general and right now.  As he notes, it has to do with the nature of the institution itself, not the (mis)behavior of its Members: "disapproval is built into the institution’s DNA."  Best cite: to a study that shows passage of major legislation actually tends to hurt Congressional approval, although note that the finding there is not uncontested.  If, however, both passage of major legislation and gridlock can both hurt Congress's approval, then perhaps (and this is only wild speculation) the 111th has been hurt by both its historic productivity and the much-remarked incorrect perception of gridlock.  I don't know.

Now, on the other hand, Huder doesn't emphasize the cultural reasons for why Americans hate Congress -- but he does, fortunately, provide an excellent example.  In a post about how Congress is unfairly maligned, Huder writes about the history of internal improvements, and his examples of people who pushed projects are...George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower.  Not that he's wrong, but just to point out the overwhelming cultural bias in favor of crediting the big things that happen to presidents, not Congress.  We do this reflexively...Barack Obama got DADT repeal through, after Bill Clinton failed.  Barack Obama failed to pass energy/climate legislation.  Yes, we'll occasionally get articles about how Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi are doing, and every once in a while we'll have some attention to the individual legislative entrepreneurs who did the bulk of the work, but most of the time it's going to be the president that we thing of. 

And that's even more true as we go back through time: quick, when's the last time you even saw Tom Foley's name, let alone saw him blamed for some of the failures during Bill Clinton's first two years in office?  Or Hubert Humphrey and the reformers of the (House) Democratic Study Group given the credit for civil rights legislation?  Certainly, JFK and LBJ deserve their share of the credit, but as you'll recall from the 2008 Democratic primary debate about civil rights, we think in terms of LBJ vs. MLK, and HHH is mainly he remembered at all today?  I suspect if so, it's by aging boomers who still resent him from the 1968 campaign, or by Tom Lehrer aficionados who remember him for being forgotten. 

For a corrective, read David Mayhew's America's Congress, which emphasizes the individual contributions Members of Congress have made to specific legislation.  Or, see Nelson W. Polsby's classic essay, "Congress-Bashing For Beginners."   Still, I don't pretend that it can be changed.  I'll quote myself: "People always hate Congress.  Mark Twain hated Congress.  Will Rogers hated Congress.  Johnny Carson hated Congress.  Jay Leno hates Congress, and I suppose the disembodied head of Jay Leno will be hating Congress decades into the future." 

Of course, that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to figure out why this particular Congress, at this particular time, has such comparatively low approval ratings.  Just remember, when you're thinking about it, to place it in the great American tradition of Congress-bashing. 


  1. Jon Stewart hates Congress too. Like the other comedians cited, he's hating it all the way to the bank.

  2. Three explanations:

    1.) I suspect that people who hate Congress mostly hate the Senate, which drives everyone batty with its outdated and idiosyncratic rules, and is becoming less and less representative of the country's wishes as the population shifts to "mega-regions," concentrated in a dozen or so states. I think if the parties more openly shifted to a regionalist politics, some things (like the influence of the "special interests") would be more transparent, and people will direct their hatred away from Congress generally and toward Senators from low-population, money-sucking states.

    2.) More simply, I wonder if there's a correlation between redistricting and Congressional approval. Right now, our gerrymandered system is at its worse, given the population movements in the past decade. The next Congress will be more Southern/Southwestern in its representation, so it will do a better job reflecting the population at large.

    3.) Also, the fact that the media's idea of a democracy (one person, one vote; majority rule) sharply differs from how our government actually works seems to be at fault. In a parliamentary democracy, a popular upswell against health care reform, or the Iraq war, could result in the toppling of a government. Here, this can't happen and, in many cases, your vote doesn't even really matter if you happen to live in a bright red or bright blue state.

  3. People especially hate this Congress because:

    1) The right wing noise machine and its effectiveness of launching lies and distortions into the MSM.
    2) The Palpatine-ian exploitation of the Senate rules by the GOP minority which has led to absurd delays, failure to pass popular legislation supported by simple majorities of Senators, and the resulting appearance of ineptitude by the majority.
    3) The economy sucks making people generally grumpy.

    Next question.

  4. I agree with your analysis, but there's also a cultural factor at work here. Americans are more comfortable with hero-worshiping individuals than rationally evaluating collective action by a legislative body.

  5. Almost everyone in Congress does not represent a given individual, so it's no surprise that he or she would likely disapprove of Congress but nonetheless vote for the incumbents. In other words, we don't like Congress because we don't like other people's Senators and Representatives. And why would we?

  6. Do people hate their state legislatures as much as they hate Congress? No, not in general. They do in California, of course, and for the same reason they hate the U.S. Congress: millions and millions of dollars spent by the GOP in ads complaining about the "do-nothing" bodies which, mostly, do nothing because the GOP blocks everything.

    Republicans learned from California that bullheaded, unprincipled obstinacy was the way to go. They saw the parallel between California's (since revised) 2/3 majority and the margin needed if the filibuster process was abused. No doubt, there was a log of head-slapping... why didn't we think of this before?!?!!?

  7. I'm fairly confident that Ron E's #3 (the economy) accounts for most of the current dip, and I suppose conservative message discipline helps a bit, but I think the rest of it is just normal dislike of Congress (and I think state legislatures, too).


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