Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
February 11, 2016

Congress Craters in Poll Question That Matters Most

Congress returns next week to face a long Senate slog on immigration, a farm bill competing for the House’s attention with going-nowhere-fast abortion restrictions and the lowest level of public confidence Gallup has ever recorded for a bedrock American institution.

The firm’s latest numbers about Congress were pretty much overlooked when they were released this week because, at first blush, the figures seemed only to echo the recent spate of abysmal congressional approval ratings.

But the new poll suggests something more worrisome about the workings of our democratic society. Whether the people are confident the legislative branch is functioning properly, an admittedly vague concept, sounds like a more reliable gauge of the institution’s long-term viability than whether they like what’s being served up at the Capitol at the moment.

That might help explain why Gallup has been asking the confidence question just once a year for four decades but gauges congressional approval every month.

In the first four days of June, only 10 percent of 1,529 people surveyed described themselves as having a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in Congress, ranking it last on a list of 16 societal institutions for the fourth consecutive year. No institution has scored lower since Gallup started asking in 1973.

The faith-in-Congress figure is one-third what it was a decade ago. And it’s slipped 3 points in a year. (During that time, the monthly approval ratings taken by the Gallup and New York Times-CBS polls have averaged 15 percent.)

The measure of confidence the public has in its lawmakers is a tiny fraction compared to the figures for some of the institutions the government pays for and regulates.

The military is tops in the new Gallup survey at 76 percent, followed by small business at 65 percent. Confidence in the medical system was 35 percent, down 6 points in the year since Obamacare began taking effect, while confidence in banks spurted up 5 points, to 26 percent in a sign of easing economic worry. Even the institutions near the bottom — organized labor, big business and HMOs — had numbers twice as high as Congress.

Underscoring the crisis of confidence, Congress was the only institution this year in which a majority expressed very little or no faith at all. The number was 52 percent; television news was the institution with the next most-pronounced lack of confidence, at 39 percent.

The numbers are also sobering for lawmakers holding out hope they might harness public perception at this summer’s crucial junction for the 113th Congress. President Barack Obama and the Hill are nearing a turning point on his second-term legislative program, and the Supreme Court could insert itself forcefully into the legislative debate with its impending rulings on collegiate affirmative action, gay marriage and the Voting Rights Act.

Confidence in the other two branches have slipped a bit in the past year, as well, but the figures for both the presidency (36 percent) and the high court (34 percent) are still more than triple that of Congress.

In contrast to the old truism about polling about Congress — voters may hate it, but they love their congressman and are OK with the leaders of the party they support — the current paucity of confidence in Capitol Hill is equivalent among Democrats, Republicans and independents.

And that’s a switch from the past, which suggests voters have become noticeably rattled and frustrated by the divided government they say they want and have voted for in the past two elections.

Four years ago, when Obama began advancing his agenda with the help of then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Democratic confidence in Congress was 27 percent — 17 points higher than the GOP figure. Three years earlier, when J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Bill Frist, R-Tenn., were the top Hill promoters of George W. Bush’s agenda, Republican confidence in Congress was 27 percent — 14 points higher than the faith Democrats expressed. But since divided government returned in 2011, the figures have always been within a handful of points of each another.

Congress has not enjoyed a stronger vote of confidence than the 42 percent it achieved the first time Gallup took the measure, in 1973. That may be an unfair benchmark to set for the current institution. This season’s glib comparisons between Obama and Richard Nixon aside, that year saw an extraordinarily self-confident Congress best the president in a high-profile battle over the power of the purse before turning its spotlight on the campaign finance and criminal implications of Watergate.

It’s also true bedrock American institutions did generally better back then; organized religion topped the list at 66 percent, followed by the public education system at 58 percent.

This year, confidence in the church is down by one-quarter from that benchmark, faith in schools is off by half. And confidence in Congress is down by three-quarters.

It has hardly anywhere to go but up. It may take another fiscal or constitutional crisis to turn it in that direction.

  • wbonesteel

    The problem is, both sides will re-elect 95% of the people they claim to despise.

  • bittman

    I see three major problems with Congress. (1) Our Constitution was written to ensure that passing bills took a long time to ensure that bad bills weren’t passed at the height of emotions yet we are living in a political environment where immediate action by Congress is demanded (thus neglecting to pay attention to the old adage that “haste makes waste);” (2) Congress is quickly producing massive bills of 2,500 pages which DELEGATES THE PRIMARY DECISIONS TO THE FEDERAL AGENCIES UNDER THE EXECUTIVE BRANCH (Obamacare is a prime example of this); and (3) Congress is allowing Executive agencies to dramatically expand the original intent and breadth of laws and thereby allowing these agencies to abuse their power (e.g., the recent IRS scandal–the most abusive case being the TRUE THE VOTE case where the IRS, FBI, ATF, EPA and OSHA apparently colluded to “punish” the founder of True the Vote).

    • Rob_Chapman

      How can a legislative action totalling 2500 or more pages delegate anything?

      Passing bills of such size is micromanaging by the legislature.

      Micromanaging by the legislature is exactly what we adopted the constitution to prevent.

      If Congress passed clear, concise laws and let the executive EXECUTE, we might see some progress in reducing gridlock in Washington, DC.

      • bittman

        I agree with the shorter laws. However, I think all of the recent abuses of power by the Executive branch agencies demonstrate that they cannot be trusted with all of the power the Congress has given them. They need to be reined in and their power, manpower, etc., dramatically decreased.

        • Rob_Chapman

          The Congress is out of control.

          Besides micromanaging through excessively detailed legislation, power drunk committee chairmen are running rough shod over due process.

          It was the Speaker of the House of Representatives who demanded jail time for executive branch employees before any indictments were handed down.

          What if appears is happening is that an extremist wing of the GOP is attempting to undo our due process protections and impose their will extralegally on the American people.

          You appear to be one the supporters of this dictatorial over reach by the House.

          • bittman

            We obviously are on opposite ends of the spectrum. I firmly believe that the balance of power among the three branches of our government is out of balance — with the Executive Branch far exceeding its power through its regulations (i.e., administratively legislating law), its Executive Orders, and its unilaterally deciding what laws it will enforce and what laws it won’t enforce. Personally, I think it is criminal that the Senate has not passed a budget bill in five years. But, it is just as criminal that the House has caved in and passed Continuing Resolutions in the past five years — all of which included the massive budget increases given to the federal agencies via the Stimulus Bill in 2009 plus the accumulated inflation costs incurred in the past five years!

          • Rob_Chapman

            We are not on opposite sides of the spectrum, Mr. Bittman, we belong to differnt eras.

            Your views are appropriate for the time of three cornered hats and buckled shoes. The technology of such things as telegraphs and raillroads made the views you hold obsolete by the mid-nineteenth century and resulted in a vast and bloody civil war.

            When you update yourself and are willing to discuss how government should work and what rights we have in the age of instant global transfers or weaponry, goods, ideas and people, we can continue our discussion.

          • bittman

            I am and will remain a firm Constitutionalist. The recent scandals demonstrate what our Founding Fathers clearly saw: man is not perfect, he will always want more power. Our freedoms began in England in the 1100’s when the English people demanded rule by common law. The freedoms we have today were passed down to us by previous generations; we must ensure that we pass the same freedoms down to our children and future generations. With our liberty, comes responsibility. It is time our generation assumes that responsibility. It is our duty to preserve our civil rights.

  • Goldenah

    It is not immigration that needs “reform”, it is the Legislative Branch and the massive, out-of-control bureaucracies they’ve created. It was never supposed to be a full time job or “profession” filled with unemployable lawyers. Nor was the Presidency supposed to devolve into a fake Monarchy.

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