07/18/2012 02:21 pm ET | Updated Sep 17, 2012

Implicit Consent: Congress and You

According to a recent CBS News/NY Times Poll, Congress' approval rating sits at a lowly fifteen percent. And that's an increase of a few points from last March.

You might have already known that. Ever since Republicans took back the House in 2010, the GOP has directed the political conversation toward President Obama's spending, particularly his contributions to our national debt. The most recent debates have centered around the President's Affordable Care Act and whether or not it would add to the deficit over the long term.

But therein lies the problem: By debating the Affordable Care Act, Congress has a free ticket to do absolutely nothing. It's been this way for decades. Obamacare is Congress' current distraction du jour. Next year, it might be immigration or climate change policy. It doesn't really matter. So long as Congress has something to disagree on, and they appear in the media regularly, they can get away with punting the political football (or, in some cases, ignoring it).

But let's go back to their approval ratings. You might think that with such low approval ratings, Americans would be stalking the ballot box, waiting to vote out their dysfunctional leaders, right?

Not so. Incumbent politicians typically don't encounter fierce resistance in re-election campaigns, unless (in the case of House representatives) the area that they are representing changes.

My Congressman is John Lewis, of Georgia's 5th District. After narrowly winning the Democratic primary for the 5th District in 1986, Lewis won the seat by 50 points. Since 1988, Lewis has won at least 69 percent of the vote.

Lewis is no anomaly. Incumbents are re-elected overwhelmingly often. The advantages of incumbency are sometimes obvious (e.g. a pre-existing fundraising apparatus), but are insufficient at answering the question here: If Congress has such low approval ratings as a body, why are individual representatives and senators so popular?

David Mayhew, a political scientist at Yale, first outlined the answer to this question. In Congress: The Electoral Connection, Mayhew argues that members of Congress are motivated by re-election; that most if not all of their behavior can be traced back to that goal.

So to what lengths will your Congressional leaders go in order to remain in office?
Mayhew divides election-seeking behavior into three categories: advertising, credit claiming and position taking.

You don't have to be Don Draper to know advertising when you see it. Political ads are all over the place, especially during an election year. The advertisements you've probably seen the most of are yard signs.

What do yard signs do? Usually a yard sign will have a candidate's name and the title of the office they're running for. Some may use a combination of colors to indicate what party the candidate belongs to. Politicians love yard signs because they provide just enough information and no more.

Your average politician wants you to know their name and -- insofar as it helps you vote for them -- the title of the office they're running for as well as their party affiliation in order to generate a vague sense of "good feeling" about themselves. They want you to walk into the voting booth and vote for them because you recognize their name, though you may no little about their background or platform.

Credit claiming is another way politicians hold onto your vote. By involving themselves in projects or policies that directly enhance their district or state, members of Congress can curry favor among their constituents. This may sound well and good, but you may also know this practice by its politically charged name: pork barrel spending.

By promoting projects that create jobs or new services for their constituents, your leaders in Washington can point to all the good they've done for you and your district come re-election time. If you've benefitted from their pet projects, you'll be all the more likely to vote for them in the fall.

Credit claiming works because voters will often overlook the transgressions of their leaders and focus only on their positive attributes or actions. This cognitive dissonance is visible even at the presidential level.

President Obama's approval rating sits at around 46 percent, according to a recent Gallup poll. But as recently as last January 78 percent of Americans said they thought the president was a good communicator, according to Pew Research Center. 75 percent said the president stands up for what he believes in. These favorability numbers are possible through the art of credit claiming. It's part of the reason that politicians are able to garner a higher percentage of the vote than their raw approval ratings.

Fortunately, position taking is one of the more transparent strategies politicians use to stay in office. By choosing a position they know to be popular, your leaders can attract you to vote for them in situations where their support for a particular bill or project is unnecessary.

Ever wondered why so many House Republicans are in favor of repealing Obamacare? It's because they have more than enough votes to repeal it. By jumping on the "repeal Obamacare" bandwagon, House Republicans can shore up their support base at home with minimal political risk.

By being aloof to the election pursuing behavior of your politicians, you are giving them your implicit consent to govern. But when they win elections and go off to Washington, they are fully aware that you know very little about what exactly they're doing.

The solution to this problem is political engagement. By paying attention to your leaders, understanding their platforms and watching their votes and actions, you can have the best possible information when stepping into the voting both.

Staying engaged isn't always easy. Different media narratives can make it difficult to delineate opinion from fact. But long-term political engagement is a responsibility we have as citizens of a liberal democracy. If you walk into the booth this November cast a vote for the name you heard last, you should know who to blame.