Last weekend, Wolf Blitzer began his interview with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi with a typical journalistic gotcha. The latest Gallup poll, he intoned, showed Congress with its lowest rating ever - just 14 percent approved of the job it was doing, while 75 percent disapproved. Then he added the coup de grace - the rating was even worse than President Bush's approval rating, 31 percent in the same poll. How did the Speaker explain that?
While it may seem logical to compare the approval ratings of Congress with those of the president, in practice the questions elicit two very different responses. For the president, it's his personal popularity. For Congress, it's a general mood of the country, only tangentially related to anything specific that Congress has or has not done. Also, a low approval rating for Congress says little about whether the majority party will prevail in the next election, while a low approval rating for the president is an indication of his low electoral appeal as well.
That Congressional approval is related to mood of the country was highlighted by the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, which announced a record low number of Americans saying the country was "headed in the right direction" (13 percent), with 74 percent feeling that "things are off on the wrong track." These are virtually identical to Gallup's record bad numbers for Congress.
The very same NBC/WSJ poll also showed that voters were apparently not taking out their dissatisfaction with what's going on in the country on the majority party in Congress. By 49 percent to 36 percent, voters said they preferred a Congress controlled by Democrats over one controlled by Republicans.
The presidential approval rating, of course, is also partially related to mood of the country, but it's always higher than congressional approval. In the 34-year history of asking this question, Gallup has always found public approval of the president higher than approval of Congress, by an average of about 16 percentage points - with one exception.
The very first time the question was asked, in April 1974, the House was holding impeachment hearings for President Richard Nixon. Gallup polls showed significant opposition to impeachment, so it was a natural question - whom did the public support more? The mid-April poll found 25 percent of the public approving of Nixon, 30 percent of Congress. (People don't like squabbles among politicians, whatever the cause.) The next time Gallup asked both approval questions was in August, after Gerald Ford had become the president. His approval rating was 71 percent; Congress's 47 percent - a 24-point gap. Thus has the pattern been ever since.
Rarely has approval of Congress included a majority of Americans. That occurred only in the last couple of years of the economic boom at the end of the Clinton administration, in the public's response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Typically, however, Americans are more likely to disapprove than approve of Congress, in part - argue two political scientists - because Congress has a more visible process by which decisions are made.
For some people, disapproval of Congress is related to its actual behavior - when there are abuses and conflicts of interest, and also specific votes that that people don't support. But few people know enough to have their evaluations of Congress influenced by what legislators actually do. More influential in most people's negative evaluation of Congress is what they see in the news media, along with their lack of appreciation for what a democracy entails. As the two political scientists note:*
[Most] people do not wish to see uncertainty, conflicting options, long debate, competing interests, confusion, bargaining, and compromised, imperfect solutions. They want government to do its job quietly and efficiently, sans conflict and sans fuss. In short...they often seek a patently unrealistic form of democracy.
Thus, low ratings of Congress are endemic to the political system. When things are going well, ratings of Congress will typically be low. When things go bad, the ratings will plummet.
So, to Wolf Blitzer and other journalists who grapple with the ambiguities of polls, the next time pollsters tell us that Congress isn't doing a good job, don't be surprised. What would be notable is if a majority of Americans approve of Congress. Then we'll know we're either under attack, or the economy must be pretty darn good.
*John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse, Congress as Public Enemy: Public Attitudes Toward Political Institutions (Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 147.