Jonathan Bernstein and Ezra Klein have a couple posts on Congress’s terrible approval ratings. Both make good points. Klein points out:

…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.

Bernstein’s accusation is more comprehensive:

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.

I agree with both Bernstein and Klein. The legislative process definitely has more than a little to do with congressional disapproval (I discuss this earlier). However, there is a middle ground between these two remarks that more appropriately describes the link between procedure and approval.

However, let’s do this first: at the end of his post Bernstein offers, “If anyone knows of a flowering of Congress love during any particular period of American history, I’d be happy to hear about it.” Challenge accepted. There are a few instances where Congress was showered with love. There was a brief period following the 1946 Legislative Reorganization Act where approval numbers made a jump following massive committee reforms. A poll in 1954 reported that 32% of Americans thought Congress was doing a “good job” and 39% thought it was doing a “fair job” for a total of 71%. This is compared to only 16% who thought Congress was doing a “bad job” (Washington Post, “Public Grants Congress a Passing Grade,” August 11th, 1954). These are decent numbers, but they are nothing compared to the Great Society Congresses. In 1964, those who thought Congress was doing an “excellent” or “pretty good” job was up at 64%. That number jumped in 1965 to 71%, which was registered after the passage of Medicare (that polled at 82% approval), Medicaid, and the Civil Rights Act (Washington Post, “71% Think Congress is Doing a Great Job,” Jan. 9th, 1966).

Does this mean America loves Congress? Hell no. In fact, these are minor interruptions in the otherwise dismal history of congressional approval. Like Bernstein says, people, for the most part, have always disliked Congress. However, these numbers also illustrate that Congress is not unable to muster public support. While the public does not care about procedural minutiae, they do understand when the process is failing and can judge it accordingly – whether its inefficiency, partisan bickering, or general ineptitude. They may not understand how a particular rule will affect legislative politics but they do understand when a previous inefficiency was resolved, or attempted to be fixed. Understanding the rules may not be in the cards for the American public but it’s not necessary. They are able to form opinions through other input.

In other words, it’s not surprising that we see small bumps in approval following major legislative reforms (such as 1946, the 1965 Congress that established the Monroney-Madden Committee that was hugely influential in the 1970s reforms, in 1974-75, etc). Major reforms reestablish legislative legitimacy for brief moments in time. Congress enjoys its brief time in the sun even if that good feeling is quickly washed away by inefficiency or, in today’s Congress, partisan incivility.

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