In 1974, President Richard Nixon resigned, Muhammad Ali knocked out George Foreman, a Hungarian architecture professor invented the Rubik’s Cube, and the first Universal Product Code (UPC) was scanned. 1974 is also the year that Gallup first asked Americans whether they approved or disapproved of the job Congress was doing. It has been asking that question in one form or another ever since. After the 2010 midterms when the lower chamber changed hands, Congress watching has almost become a sporting event with numbers like scores. The House is where the action is. The score this month: 17 percent and falling.
After scientifically analyzing thirty years’ worth of collected public opinion data, what Gallup found was that Congress never averaged above a 42 percent job approval rating for any calendar year prior to 1999 nor averaged below a 42 percent afterwards. But that started to change after 2004. Gallup noted of congress’s job approval rating, “. . . that record is being tested this year as the public grows more negative toward the direction of the country in general and President George W. Bush in particular with a sluggish economy and an ongoing war in Iraq.”
Gallup began its annual updating of congressional approval in the 1991-1992 term of the 102nd Congress. “Approval of subsequent Congresses has varied mostly from the low 20s to the mid-40s, although it reached 55 percent for the 107th Congress’ 2001-2002 term.” It should be noted that following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Congress scored a record 84 percent job approval rating in October 2001.
The sport of congress watching advanced as more polls began to assess public opinion and apply ratings of their own, kind of like inverse handicapping. The CBS poll began asking the congress approval question in 1977. In May of 2005 CBS reported, “Today a majority of Americans, 55 percent, disapprove of the way Congress is doing its job.” CBS continued, “Approval ratings for Congress have historically been low, rarely moving above the 50 percent mark since this poll began asking the question,” and concurred with Gallup. “However, recent Congressional ratings are at some of their lowest points since the mid-nineties,” the network said.
This month the decline in the approval ratings of Congress has set record lows. A Rasmussen survey reports, “. . . the approval rating of Congress has slipped into single digits. It now stands at just 9 percent, tying an all-time low.” The survey also says, “Just 16 percent of survey respondents say Congress has passed legislation in the past year that will improve life in America significantly,” contributing to the second month of its 9 percent rating.
According to pollster Scott Rasmussen, who started his survey in 2003, “If we ever found a Little League team behaving as poorly as the Republicans and Democrats or the congressman and senators, we’d probably disband the team and go home.” Of course he also has a book to promote, In Search of Self-Governance. But the findings of the survey that bears his name are consistent with Gallup’s, if not a bit more pessimistic.
The Rasmussen survey also says, “Eighty percent of respondents say members of Congress care more about advancing their own careers than helping their constituents.” That would make it the House of Self-Representatives, like Bachmann and Paul who haven’t posted scores yet.
Ratings aside for the moment, service in the lower chamber of congress, self and otherwise, has been the big league beginning for the careers of 19 presidents and 33 major presidential nominees. According to the Office of the Clerk of the House of Representatives, “Only Henry Clay (1824), James A. Garfield (1880), and John Anderson (1980) ran for President in the general election as sitting House Members.” Garfield became president. More familiar House members were Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Bush the elder, and contenders McGovern, Anderson, Dole, Gore and McCain. The most famous president to come from the House is Abraham Lincoln, Whig of Illinois.
Back in Gallup trends, Congress had a 19 percent rating in June 1979 and an 18 percent approval rating in March 1992. “All of the historical low ratings have come during sluggish economic times in the United States,” Gallup reported. Such a dim view of Congress by Americans has led to significant turnovers after the 2006, 2008, and 2010 elections. Gallup concludes, “Unless conditions in the United States improve and Americans become more charitable in their ratings of Congress, the 2012 elections may result in another shake-up in Congress’ membership.”
To use the vernacular, it must suck to go to work every day in an organization that most of your fellow Americans thoroughly dislike. So far the 112th Congress has achieved new nadirs in its approval ratings that may not have tanked yet. If the scorecards are accurate, the present Republican House majority and its speaker John Boehner could end its series with a loss in 2012 and be replaced by a Democrat majority and the return of Nancy Pelosi as speaker. Compared to Congress’ 17 percent approval numbers, which is the same as it was following the last election, the President’s 43 percent approval numbers look great.