UM Press author explains Congress’ low approval ratings for Huffington Post, KPFK

by University of Michigan Press on August 17, 2011

Jones thumb David Jones, author of Americans, Congress, and Democratic Responsiveness: Public Evaluations of Congress and Electoral Consequences, was recently interviewed by the Huffington Post and KPFK in Los Angeles about the nation’s growing dissatisfaction with its elected representatives. Here, he attempts to answer the question: What’s the matter with Congress?

According to a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted this past week, Congress may now be the most unpopular it has ever been. Eighty-two percent of Americans say they disapprove of the job Congress is doing. Other recent polls reveal similarly poor ratings. In light of these dramatic findings it is natural to ask: what is the source of this displeasure, and why does it matter?

Traditionally, scholars have focused on two factors that influence public evaluations of Congress—the national economy and the legislative process—and certainly both of these factors have been at work recently. Americans do not like feeling that their standard of living is being threatened, but economic growth continues to be meager at best, dragging down evaluations of everyone in government. Americans also dislike the dithering and dickering that is endemic to the legislative process, and these are characteristics that were highlighted in news coverage of the debt ceiling debate over the past month.

A third influence, which has customarily been overlooked, is policy representativeness. As we demonstrate in our book Americans, Congress, and Democratic Responsiveness, Americans prefer Congress to pursue policies that more closely reflect their own policy inclinations. Whenever the policy direction of Congress—particularly the House of Representatives—seems out of step, public disapproval of Congress increases.

In light of Americans’ desire for policy representativeness from Congress, the recent congressional actions surrounding the debt ceiling take on added significance. While a majority of Americans supported a mixture of spending cuts and revenue increases to reduce the deficit (Reuters poll, July 25), they watched as Congress—propelled in large part by its Tea Party members—insisted on a cuts-only approach. Not surprisingly, then, a CNN poll conducted during the same period found that 58% of Americans believed the “policies being proposed by the Republican leaders” would move the country in the wrong direction—the highest level of policy disagreement CNN has ever recorded.

If, as congressional scholar Richard Fenno famously put it, members were always able to “run for Congress by running against Congress,” this public disapproval would not matter very much. Unfortunately for the majority party, evidence shows that congressional evaluations do matter. Specifically, we find that when voters disapprove of Congress they are less likely to vote for candidates from the majority party on Election Day.

Furthermore, this behavior among voters helps to shape the resulting balance of power after the election. Between 1974 and 2010, whenever approval of Congress was higher than its historical average of 35%, the majority party gained an average of six seats in the House of Representatives. When approval was below average, the majority party lost an average of sixteen seats.

In sum, recent events surrounding the debt ceiling provide further evidence that the Congress’s own policy actions have consequences for its job ratings. And, if past elections are any guide, these ratings will carry significant electoral consequences for Republicans in 2012.

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