“The Lens of Deep Suspicion.” Why Americans disapprove of Congress.

Most Americans disapprove of Congress and have for a long time. However, today Congress matched its historic best in disappointing US citizens. Gallup released a poll today showing that only 13% of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing (This is according to Gallup. In 2008, Congress managed 9% approval in a different poll). While 13% is low, it isn’t uncharted territory. Each successive poll, with the exception of a few outliers, echoes America’s frustration with its most democratic institution. Congress has only achieved an approval rating over 50% roughly eight times in the past 50 years.

So why does Congress suffer this fate? One popular explanation is corruption. It’s a salient point and it hardly comes from one source. The media, politicians, and academics alike all point fingers at the few scoundrels tarnishing its image. They have a point, too. For a stretch from the 70s through the 90s scandals running the gamut from strippers to improper use of PAC money were cited for eroding public confidence. There is no question corruption plays a role. Congress’s sluggish failure to enact ethics reform in the late 80s and 90s, outlawing and criminalizing these abuses, didn’t help its cause either. In 1994 David Broder referred to dropping approval numbers on account of scandals as the public’s “Lens of Deep Suspicion.”

However, I don’t think corruption is at the heart of this disapproval. Despite the media’s infatuation with scandals and ethics violations, scandal does not permeate the entire membership. Rather, the ethics violators and scandalous representatives and senators are a very small population nested within the 535 members of Congress. Often times, members accused or convicted of scandal are sent back to Congress. Wilber Mill’s was caught having an affair with a stripper and it still took him poor health, alcoholism, and retirement under his own accord to lose his seat.

The point is: Congress’s approval ratings remain in the dumps but individual members are almost inexplicably supported. Mills won his reelection following his very public scandal by 60%. Mills’ case isn’t out of the ordinary. Overall, incumbents are overwhelmingly favored in each election year and have been at least the 1880s. Today, House incumbents are reelected roughly 95% of the time. But looking at the issue more closely, blaming corruption seems to be an alibi for a much deeper problem.

There is a much more real problem with individuals’ disapproval with Congress. At some level, it’s a disapproval of democracy. Sure, if you ask somebody, “Do you approve or disapprove of democracy?” it will undoubtedly prompt a 10-minute speech on the virtues of the people and the wisdom of our Founding Fathers. If you’re lucky, they might sprinkle in a little Constitution and a couple “self-evident” truths. However, if you probe deeper, you’ll likely find some tension in their story. Now, I’m not trying to claim Congress represents a democratic ideal. Regardless, Congress embodies the democratic character of our republic. One of the problems inherent to Congress, and democracy in general, is the tension between the national, state, and local interests. In other words, legislating for the “common good” can alienate segments of society; whether that’s a city, state, or region.

A type of legislation that typifies this tension is infrastructure legislation. This lesson was particularly salient early in America’s history. At the outset of the republic, George Washington mused about the numerous road, canals, and projects that would unite the colonies into a single country (Larson 2001, Internal Improvement). His writings were more than a symbolic gesture to unite a country. A good infrastructure brings a wealth of political and economic benefits. For example, President Eisenhower argued the 1956 Federal Aid Highway Act on the basis of its contribution to national defense (it was also known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act). Similarly, creating the Erie Canal helped turn New York City into one of the most important and wealthy cities in America. By creating a channel of transportation for goods from New York City ports to the Midwest, it generated regional economic growth.

The problem that projects like this ran into was local and regional objections that didn’t benefit. Why would a planter from the South wish to spend money on a canal in the North? He wouldn’t (in the case of the Erie Canal, a pesky southern President found it unconstitutional. Ultimately, the New York State Legislature found the money for the project). The fate of other infrastructure projects fell at the hands of representation. Regional and local rivalries, all fighting for the same funds, ultimately undermined national infrastructure projects. I mention this because it is instructive of Congress’s representation problem. It is meant to create national legislation but is constantly torn local and regional interests at odds with national interests. This is one of the many reasons pork barrel funding became a primary source for expanding and improving America’s infrastructure.

Applying this concept to individuals is informative when considering Congress’s disapproval. As a governing institution it is often at odds with its representative character. Again, why would an institution meant to represent me create something so at odds with my own interests? Literature on this topic often points to people’s dissatisfaction with the process of legislating (Hibbing 1995; 2001). Durr, Gilmour, and Wolbrecht (1997, gated) find that Congress’s approval rating takes a hit when major legislation is passed. By simply doing its job Congress can alienate large parts of its constituency. So while people like their legislators, they dislike when they get together with fellow members and legislate.

So as disconcerting as the congressional approval ratings are, it appears that disapproval is built into the institution’s DNA. At one level, I understand the issue at hand. At another, it’s frustrating voters don’t understand and appreciate the process better. It’s difficult to meld 350 million voices into a bill. Reasonable people can and will disagree. Having an appreciation for the difficulties legislators face may be a constructive step toward restoring some faith in our governing institution. But with the behavior of some “select” members, maybe not.