As the U.S. Congress’s approval ratings drop to historic lows, one thing that hasn’t changed is the people in charge.
John Boehner, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell this week began their eighth year as the leaders running Congress. That’s longer than any other foursome has worked together since the Senate formalized its leadership structure in the 1920s.
As Congress this year tries to avoid a government shutdown, avert a debt default and break a cycle of dysfunction, the quartet carries the residue of past conflicts: the financial system rescue in 2008, trips to the brink of default in 2011 and 2013 and last-minute deals to extend tax cuts in 2010 and 2012.
“It’s the old cliche -- how do porcupines make love?” said former Representative Martin Frost, a Texas Democrat. “And the answer to that is very carefully. So they have to be able to work together.”
Complicating matters further, the four leaders will each be angling to keep power in their own parties and expand their ranks in the November election, when the entire House and one-third of the Senate will be on the ballot. That means the leaders will try to score political points and negotiate bipartisan solutions at the same time.
Pelosi is again trying to take Boehner’s job and reclaim the House speakership she lost in 2010. McConnell has primary and general-election opponents and also wants to help Republicans across the country so they can take control of the Senate from Reid. And Boehner and Reid are blaming each other for being unwilling to compromise.
Asked today at the Capitol if there was any way the leaders’ eighth year together could be better, Boehner said, “I wish I had a good answer for you. We’ve got a very divided Congress and divided country.”
Since Boehner, Reid, Pelosi and McConnell took over as a group in 2007, public approval ratings for Congress have slid.
In January 2007, 35 percent of voters approved of Congress’s performance, with the rating peaking at 39 percent in March 2009, according to Gallup. The monthly figure has been below 20 percent for 30 of the past 31 months. It hit a record low of 9 percent in November 2013, after a 16-day partial government shutdown in October.
As one measure of productivity, Obama signed 72 laws passed by Congress in 2013, the lowest on record for any year since at least the 1940s.
Those ratings and figures are partly a reflection of divided government with voters rejecting Congress because of the other party’s actions. Congress was under complete Democratic control in 2009 and 2010 with higher approval ratings. Since then, even basic functions of government have become difficult.
Reid, a Democrat, predicted that the 2014 midterm election will exacerbate partisan tensions, and blamed Republicans, saying this year would bring more gridlock “unless the Republicans in Congress decide they should do something for the American people.”
“The rating of Congress is down,” Reid said Jan. 5 on CBS’s “Face the Nation” program. “If somebody called me on a poll, I would vote with them. This is awful, what’s been going on.”
Boehner, a 64-year-old Ohio Republican who is now the House speaker, became his party’s leader in January 2007. He succeeded Dennis Hastert, who left leadership after Republicans lost the House majority in the 2006 midterm election.
That same month, McConnell of Kentucky, now 71, became the Senate Republican leader after Bill Frist of Tennessee didn’t seek re-election.
Pelosi, a 73-year-old California Democrat, is the longest-serving leader, taking over after the 2002 election from Richard Gephardt of Missouri. Reid, a 74-year-old from Nevada, rose to the top spot in the Senate when his predecessor, Tom Daschle, lost his 2004 re-election contest.
The four leaders haven’t suffered major health scares or scandals and none of the four caucuses in Congress has been compelled to make a change at the top.
“It’s going to take something pretty extraordinary, if you have a leader in place that wants to stay in place, for a party to in effect divide itself bitterly to force a change,” said Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a free-market group in Washington.
The current quartet has had staying power. Pelosi, in part because of her fund-raising prowess, remained the leader of House Democrats even after they lost the chamber’s majority.
Boehner and McConnell, who have both been in Congress for more than 23 years, retained control even as Tea Party-backed Republicans grew in number and influence, sometimes openly challenging the leadership.
Reid told Roll Call in December that he didn’t want to remain leader “more than eight more years.”
Of the four leaders, Boehner is by far in the most precarious position, Ornstein said, noting that his caucus often is in rebellion and nine Republicans voted for someone else for speaker last January. The anti-establishment sentiment among House Republicans hasn’t coalesced into a serious challenge to Boehner’s speakership.
The foursome has presided over significant turnover in the broader congressional ranks. More than half of both chambers -- 56 senators and 230 House members -- first came to the body in which they now serve in January 2007 or later.
Every major congressional issue of the past seven years has been handled by this group, sometimes smoothly and often not.
A failed vote on the first version of the 2008 financial system rescue turned bitter as Pelosi blamed Republicans for not delivering the votes they had promised and they faulted her for what they described as an inflammatory pre-vote speech.
In late 2012, Boehner shouted an obscenity at Reid in the White House after Reid had given a speech saying the speaker was running the House like a “dictatorship.”
McConnell and Reid have been engaged in an escalating fight over the chamber’s rules. Reid routinely accuses McConnell of obstruction and McConnell responds by complaining that Reid fails to allow Republicans chances to amend bills. McConnell suggested last year that Reid would go down in Senate history as the wost-ever majority leader.
That dynamic is visible now in the debate over whether to revive expanded unemployment benefits.
“Over the past several years, the Senate seems more like a campaign studio than a serious legislative body,” McConnell said on the floor yesterday in a speech calling for “restoring” the Senate. “Both sides will have to work to get us back to where we should be. It won’t happen overnight. We’re all out of practice.”
Frost said he saw the start of a detente in the bipartisan budget agreement enacted in December, in part because Boehner was repudiating the no-concessions tactics of some members.
“It appears right now that you’re at a point where both the two House leaders and the two Senate leaders understand that government has to function,” said Frost, who unsuccessfully challenged Pelosi to be the top House Democrat in 2002. He is now a lobbyist at Polsinelli PC in Washington, whose clients include the Domestic Energy Producers Alliance.
The previous longevity record for congressional leadership was from June 1989 to January 1995, under House Speaker Tom Foley of Washington, a Democrat; Republican leader Bob Michel of Illinois; Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell of Maine, a Democrat, and Republican leader Bob Dole of Kansas.
All four members of that group were out of power by June 1996 -- Mitchell and Michel retiring, Foley losing his seat and Dole resigning to focus on a presidential campaign.
The lack of change in recent years means that the quartet hasn’t had a chance for a “fresh start,” said Republican Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, who lost to Boehner in a 2006 leadership election and blames Obama for gridlock.
“One thing you do have that should be a benefit is that you don’t have to explain over and over again how we got to the point where we are,” he said.