Friday, April 22, 2011

Everyone Hates Congress, Always

I'm afraid I have to call Ezra Klein out for a bit of Me the Peoplism in a post noting that "everyone hates Congress again." Klein:
I think that’s basically unfair — the issue isn’t individuals so much as the system they operate in — but it’s also an outcome that both parties in Congress have brought upon themselves by preferring an equilibrium in which it’s easier for the minority to regain power to one where it’s easier for the majority to govern effectively.
Sorry, but this won't wash. Everyone hated Congress in the pre-institutionalized Congress of the 19th century, when it was the House that had the filibuster; they hated Congress when it ran with ruthless efficiency under Speakers Reed and Cannon and during the early years of Woodrow Wilson's presidency; they hated Congress during the New Deal; they hated it during the era of bipartisanship and the conservative coalition; they hated it when liberals took over and ended segregation and passed Medicare and Medicaid; they hated the reformed Congress of the 1970s; they hated it during the era of divided government; they hated it after the rise of the routine filibuster in the Senate; they hated it when the Gingrich Republicans took over; they hated it when the historic 111th passed tons of legislation. Trying to connect the American people's deep and long-standing contempt for their Congress with any particular set or arrangements or procedures is a mug's game.

Of course, he's correct about it being the system and not individuals, but only if "system" means Congress, regardless of particular rules and norms.

(Fine -- we don't have polling data that goes all the way back, but we do have Mark Twain and Will Rogers and Groucho and Mr. Smith and the rest of it, including of course Richard Fenno. If anyone knows of a flowering of Congress love during any particular period of American history, I'd be happy to hear about it).


  1. How do you know all this? Were they conducting public opinion polls on this question in the 19th century?

  2. Is this characteristic of other electoral democracies? Do Canadians and Brits hate Parliament, or the Commons? Do the French hate the National Assembly? Or is hating the national legislature a peculiarly American sport?

  3. Everyone hates Congress? Well, I think it's more correct to say everyone hates Congress but they generally like the person who represents them.

  4. Everyone hates legislatures.

    Check out California. Here, when Davis was polling in the teens before getting recalled, guess who polled lower? The CA legislature.

    People hate democracy. They like democracy in the stylized version they have in their heads, which involves everyone in the country agreeing with them. They don't like it in practice because, well, it's messy, and it turns out people disagree with them.

  5. The literary evidence is, indeed, that derisive mockery of Congress, and American politicians in general, goes back to the very beginning. Even the Founders, when they served in office, came in for a big share of it (when they weren't dishing out to each other).

  6. Everyone hates Congress, but most like their Representative. That is easy to understand -- all those other legislators are representing other people, most likely people whose economic interests and social and political traditions are not as closely aligned with yours as are those of other voters in your own community and district. In some cases, even, their interests may be wildly, and most certainly irritatingly, different.

    During the term limit dust up of the early-mid 90s it always amused me when proponents would cite people like Ted Kennedy or, for those on the left, Strom Thurmond, as examples of who needed to be term limited. It appeared that the hope of proponents of federal terms limits was always to turn out SOMEONE ELSE'S Senator or Congressman. Which is why that movement never went anywhere.

  7. So you're rolling with anecdotes eh? Good to know.


  8. I want to post what "strasjones" posted in the comments at Yglesias' blog, where he talked about this post of Jonathan Bernstein's:

    "In theory, Congress is supposed to act as an important freedom-preserving 'check' on executive power. In practice, everyone hates Congress so this doesn’t really work."

    This is either bizarrely worded or just completely backwards. The public's disgust for Congress is not preventing Congress from "working" as "an important freedom-preserving check on executive power." It's precisely the fact that Congress does not serve the interests of the public that causes the public to hate it.

    Meanwhile, Jonathan Bernstein spends much of that paragraph running down a long list of permutations of arrangements of Congressional power, but in none of those arrangements did the United States Congress actually serve the interests of the American public. Throughout its existence, Congress has defended the privileges of the rich and powerful against the rights of the vast working class, ceding minute scraps of power to the poor only grudgingly and after years-long mass social movements. Congress is detested because it is detestable.

  9. Jonathan:

    How about the 73rd Congress? Swept in with FDR in 1933?

    Not only did that Congress actually do something, they were immediately preceded by the famous "Hung Parliament" of the 72nd Congress.

    Unfortunately, iirc, that was a year or two before Gallup's first polls.

  10. Phil P,

    That doesn't wash; if that's what you believe about Congress, you surely believe it about the presidents as well, and most of them individually and the presidency in general are liked and respected.


    Good question. I guess what I'd say is -- how many Members of the 73rd are famous for what they did in that Congress? It seems to me that, as is typical, FDR got credited with everything that people liked.

    However, there is of course some variation in how much everyone hates Congress at any particular time, and I'd guess that the 73rd did well, comparatively.

  11. Jonathan,

    Is this not a question of degree? To me the point "Southern Belle" makes about the gap between one's view of one's own member and the "other members" used to be rather large. I had understood that in a relatively recent election / recent poll / recent noted trend in the past x years, that the gap had decreased. If not (if my recollection is faulty), then that the approval rating of one's own member was much lower than it had used to be. Just wondering your thoughts on this...


  12. I bet you're right on the whole. My guess for a highpoint in Congressional popularity in the North would be when the Congress did Radical Reconstruction--but this would have been mostly because it was acting in opposition to a hated President

  13. I've listed a few instances where congressional approval jumped:

  14. Thanks, Josh -- I recommend his post to everyone.

    I'm not convinced on some of it, though. You cite a 1954 poll to show that the 1946 Reorganization Act helped Congress...really? And I think you're on much firmer ground linking the Great Society numbers to Medicare/Medicaid/civil rights (although it may also have had to do with JFK and the economy...), but Congressional reform? As a direct effect, I don't buy it at all.


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