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Congress Approval Rating Slides to Lowest Point in 14 Years

October 19, 2006 at 5:05 PM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: Congress has never been wildly popular, but a new Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll out today shows respect for the institution at rock bottom. Only 16 percent of those surveyed approved of the job Congress is doing, tying an all-time low in this poll’s 17-year history; 75 percent disapproved.

When asked to rate the overall performance of this year’s Congress in particular, 56 percent graded it below average or one of the worst. And in a troubling sign for Republicans heading into the midterm elections, 52 percent of those polled said they’d prefer a Democrat-controlled Congress; just 37 percent chose the Republicans.

For more on the dissatisfaction with Congress, the reasons and potential impact, we’re joined by Tom Mann, congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution and co-author of the recent book “The Broken Branch: How Congress is Failing America and How to Get it Back on Track.”

And Andy Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center.

Tom and Andy, welcome back.

Andy, take these numbers in this poll, take what we heard from the voters, many of the voters in Gwen’s piece, in terms of their feelings about Congress, and put that in historical context for us.

ANDREW KOHUT, Pew Center for the People and the Press: Well, it’s easy just to say: These are record lows. And they’re not empty record lows. I mean, there was a 15-percent satisfaction score back in ’92 when people were appalled by the House banking scandal, in the Wall Street Journal poll, but this 16 percent represents a slide from September. It was 20 percent in September.

The numbers keep getting worse in this poll and in many other polls. It’s clear that the public is very, very unhappy with the performance of this Congress. It’s seen as achieving less than most congresses. And when we asked the follow-up question, “Who’s to blame?” by a 62 percent to 10 percent margin, people say, “The Republicans, the folks that are in charge.”

Strategic voting

Andrew Kohut
Pew Research Center
The voters were saying, there's a kind of "throw the bums out, we need change" sentiment. We had the largest percentage in our poll of people saying, "I'm going to be thinking about who controls Congress when I cast the ballot," 57 percent.

MARGARET WARNER: And how significant, from all you know about these kinds of surveys, is what they say about which party they want to have control and how they feel about party control of Congress?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, it's very significant, because the incumbents who are in trouble this year are overwhelmingly Republican. Just like back in '94, the other great election of change, the incumbents who were in trouble were overwhelmingly Democrats, and most of them lost.

MARGARET WARNER: But to people vote sort of strategically? I mean, do they say, "Well, I don't want Republicans to control Congress, so I'm going to vote this way"? Or is it just sort of a national wave -- a wave takes over and they express themselves the only way they know how, which happens to be against their member?

ANDREW KOHUT: Well, as the voters were saying, there's a kind of "throw the bums out, we need change" sentiment. We had the largest percentage in our poll of people saying, "I'm going to be thinking about who controls Congress when I cast the ballot," 57 percent. And in this Wall Street Journal poll, a 48 percent plurality saying it would be better that the Republicans don't control the House, the Senate, and the White House.

Abusing the majority status

Thomas Mann
Brookings Institution
What's really interesting is that the public's unhappiness links up in all of its dimensions with what's actually wrong inside the Congress. Three words: corruption, Iraq, and partisanship.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Tom, from the title of your book, it seems you believe that, in fact, Congress deserves the low marks they're getting.

THOMAS MANN, Brookings Institution: They have earned every bit of that 16 percent approval, 75 percent disapproval. And let me rush to say I have never concluded that before. I think Congress is, indeed, the broken branch.

What's really interesting is that the public's unhappiness links up in all of its dimensions with what's actually wrong inside the Congress. Three words: corruption, Iraq, and partisanship.

On the corruption side, we've seen the stories and heard in the last segment of the Jack Abramoffs and the Duke Cunninghams, Tom DeLays and the Bob Neys, but it really goes beyond that. In order to protect some of their members, this leadership in the House was willing to basically destroy the ethics process, to fire the Republican members, and then after promising to reform that whole process, decided to do nothing about it. Now, at the end of the Congress, they're trying to explain their inactions with respect to Mark Foley's corruption.

On Iraq, Americans are saying, "Well, where was Congress?" The first branch of government is supposed to oversee the president, and they haven't been doing it.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the Republicans made similar charges against the Democrats that they had -- back leading up to the '94 elections, that they had abused their majority status. Was that correct?

THOMAS MANN: Yes, it was. Absolutely. Near the end of a 40-year Democratic reign in Congress, you saw this arrogance of power, a willingness to clamp down on the institution, to allow no genuine deliberation in committees, no amendments on the floor, waiving all the rules that allow members to get bills in time to read them before they have to vote on them. But all of that happened under the Democratic reign, but the Republicans came in after '94 promising to clean up the House and run it according to regular order.

MARGARET WARNER: And so what happened? Why did they fall into the same pattern?

THOMAS MANN: They were trying to govern with a narrow majority, initially facing Bill Clinton, a Democratic president, but trying to hold their troops together.

But it really took off when George Bush moved into the White House, and there was this first united Republican government since the Eisenhower years. And so there was a big push for the Congress to be the lieutenants of the president and take any means necessary to push that program through, which is what led to winning at all costs, the very kind of sentiment that I noticed John Hannah in that last segment said, "The politicians seem genuinely more concerned with maintaining power than doing what's right for the nation."

National poll as predictors

Andrew Kohut
Pew Research Center
National polls in off-year elections, not in presidential elections, do a pretty good job of estimating the popular vote. And from the popular vote, you can pretty much determine how many seats each party will get.

MARGARET WARNER: So the big question is: What does this mean for the elections? And, Andy, I mean, how good are a predictor are national polls like this or even anecdotal stories to what will really happen in an election?

ANDREW KOHUT: National polls in off-year elections, not in presidential elections, do a pretty good job of estimating the popular vote. And from the popular vote, you can pretty much determine how many seats each party will get.

Now, this has historically been good, but recently, with the gerrymandering, the relationship between votes, one, and seats is not quite what it once was. If the margins that we now see today occurred in the old world of politics, pre-1994...

MARGARET WARNER: How long ago?

ANDREW KOHUT: ... pre-1992, you would have 50 or 60 seats change. I don't think that the relationship between seats and popular vote -- which we can do a pretty good job of measuring -- would suggest that in the new political landscape. But it might well be large enough to achieve the 15-seat barrier that the Democrats need to take control of the House.

THOMAS MANN: Margaret, I think in spite of the decline of competitiveness in the districts, there remain enough seats at risk for the Republicans -- 60, even 70 -- that you, with this size wave that seems to be gathering -- and the evidence is now national and local -- that it's amazing to see the local race polls fall in line with the national polls, leading me to believe that we could see 30, 35 or more seat turnover in the House of Representatives.

And in the Senate, we could get the same kind of tipping effect we've seen in previous national tidal wave elections that would be sufficient to give Democrats the six seats they need to take the majority there, so big changes afoot.

Safe seats in danger?

Thomas Mann
Brookings Institution
If we're to change, we first need the public to rise up and throw the team out, and then the new team to be held to a very different standard.

MARGARET WARNER: But your point, Andy, is that, for instance in '94, when we saw a similar wave, the Republicans actually took 54 seats, but it's just much, much harder to do that now.

ANDREW KOHUT: Right, but the Democrats have a lower barrier. The Democrats only have to win 56 percent of the competitive seats, which is a smaller number.

MARGARET WARNER: To take control.

ANDREW KOHUT: To take control. But the Republicans won 70 percent, more than 70 percent or 75 percent of the competitive seats back in '94.

MARGARET WARNER: And briefly, Tom, would you say that the whole phenomenon of safe seats also contributes to the internal systemic problems that you talked about in Congress?

THOMAS MANN: It does. What's behind the problem is the intense ideological polarization of the parties at a time of their near parity. And we have so many lopsided Democratic and Republican districts that tend to recruit and re-elect members who live comfortably at their ideological poles.

It makes it very hard to get people talking across party lines. It fosters a tribalism of partisanship that's very unhealthy. And the leaders in Congress and the president of the United States have encouraged that, by the way in which they've governed. If we're to change, we first need the public to rise up and throw the team out, and then the new team to be held to a very different standard.

MARGARET WARNER: And have the new team actually interpret the results that way. Tom Mann, Andy Kohut, thank you.

ANDREW KOHUT: Thanks.