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U.S. Congress Returns to Washington Amid Historically Low Approval Ratings

With polls showing approval of Congress at an historic low, lawmakers returned to Washington today to start the legislative year and resume the very battles that opinion surveys show have turned off voters.

The House will vote tomorrow on a resolution disapproving President Barack Obama’s proposed increase in the U.S. debt limit -- a symbolic action that won’t prevent a $1.2 trillion rise in borrowing authority. The vote is left over from last year’s battle that brought the government to the brink of default. Later, Congress must revisit a payroll tax cut dispute that kept lawmakers at work until Dec. 23.

A Washington-Post ABC News poll conducted Jan. 12-15 put Congress’s approval rating at 13 percent, a record low for that opinion survey. A Dec. 15-18 Gallup poll put the approval rate at 11 percent, also a record low. A Pew Research Center poll found that 53 percent of those surveyed Dec. 7-11 said Republicans were more extreme than Democrats and 51 percent said Democrats were more willing to compromise.

“The climate of opinion is so negative toward political conflict here in Washington, there is such a great desire to see some compromise, that both parties would be well served doing what they can to give the public some sense that things are going to be better in 2012,” said Andrew Kohut, director of the non-partisan Pew Research Center in Washington.

Occupy Wall Street

House members returned from a holiday recess as hundreds of protesters from the Occupy Wall Street movement massed outside the Capitol. Some of their ire was aimed at Democrats. One sign carried by a protester said, “Face it Liberals, the Dems Sold Us Out.”

“The American public are right to be distressed, disappointed, anxious, angry about the failure of the Congress to address the serious problems confronting our country,” Representative Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the second-ranking House Democrat, told reporters today.

Tomorrow’s House vote was scheduled after Obama notified Congress on Jan. 12 that the Treasury needed to raise its borrowing authority. The disapproval resolution, expected to pass the Republican-led House, is likely to die in the Democratic-controlled Senate, which returns to Washington next week, or be vetoed by the president.

Hoyer said the vote was a “charade” because lawmakers of both parties realize enacting it would “have very negative consequences fiscally here and around the world.” He said the “overwhelming number of Democrats” will oppose the measure.

Credit Rating Downgrade

Still, the vote will revive memories of last July’s fight over raising the debt limit that rattled financial markets and led to a downgrade in the credit rating of U.S. debt.

The vote is “probably not a good idea from the Republican point of view given the numbers we have here,” Kohut said in a telephone interview, referring to the polls.

Dissatisfaction with Congress is nothing new, said Duke University political scientist David Rohde. “The public doesn’t like Congress failing to make it any better” when things are going wrong, he said in a telephone interview. “We had a disastrous economic crisis and it hasn’t gotten a lot better so the public is unhappy about that.”

For Kohut, a key number in the Pew Center survey is that a record 50 percent of those surveyed said the current Congress, elected in 2010, has accomplished less than recent ones.

‘Spin’ and Politics

Hoyer said last year was the least productive session he has been part of since being elected in 1981 and said he wasn’t optimistic that would change this year.

“If all we do is allow ourselves to be caught up purely with spin and presidential politics, then it won’t be very productive,” he said.

Another finding in the Pew poll is that a record 67 percent of respondents think incumbent members of Congress shouldn’t be re-elected in November. A near-record-low 50 percent of voters said their own representative should be re-elected.

“There are few times” that number has “been that low in recent years,” Kohut said. In 2010, when 48 incumbents were defeated in an election that gave Republicans control of the House, 49 percent of those surveyed by Pew said their representative deserved re-election.

To win control of the House, Democrats must gain at least 25 seats, an outcome Rohde called “very hard to see” unless voters’ negative attitudes about Congress spill over to their own representatives. “That’s what happened in 2010, Democrats got wrecked” by dissatisfaction with their performance, he said.

63-Seat Gain

In 2010 Republicans, campaigning against the health-care law passed that year by the Democratic-controlled Congress, gained 63 House seats. Republicans tapped into disaffection over the economy, accusing Democrats and Obama of pursuing policies that discouraged job creation when the unemployment rate was stuck above 9 percent.

Winning control of the House in this year’s election would be a difficult feat for Democrats because, historically, such switches in power are more likely when one party controls the presidency and Congress, Rohde said.

“It’s usually only unified government that can produce a shift big enough in order to lose 25 seats,” Rohde said. A change in the legislative majority occurred in 1980, when Republicans took control of the U.S. Senate and Ronald Reagan defeated incumbent Democratic President Jimmy Carter.

Clinton, Bush Terms

It happened in 1994, when Republicans took both houses of Congress during Democratic President Bill Clinton’s first term. Republicans lost control of Congress to Democrats in 2006, during George W. Bush’s second term.

Republicans will try in November to take over the Senate majority, now held by 51 Democrats and two independents who caucus with the Democrats. Republicans hold 47 seats.

Democrats have a slightly better approval rating than Republicans. The latest Washington Post-ABC poll put their approval at 33 percent of those surveyed compared with the Republicans’ 21 percent approval rating.

The anti-incumbent sentiment is “a bad sign for all members of Congress,” Kohut said. “If there was a Republican victory at the top of the ticket, it may not have the impact down the ticket” that the election of a Republican president typically would, he said.

“If there is a Democratic victory” in the presidential race, “Republicans would take a hit,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: James Rowley in Washington at jarowley@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jodi Schneider at jschneider50@bloomberg.net

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