According to a recent Gallup poll, public approval ratings for the U.S. Congress have plummeted to an all-time record low of 11 percent. The Washington Post did a fascinating — but somewhat scary — compilation this week of some of the other people and things Americans have found to be at least as popular as the U.S. Congress. It's a bit alarming to see so many things that most people find downright repugnant now surpass Congress in popularity, but given its performance of late, it comes as no surprise.
Here’s a short synopsis:
- Polygamy — At 11 percent approval among Americans, polygamy enjoys about the same level of popular support as today's Congress. That is a bit sobering.
- BP's handling of the Gulf oil spill — 13 percent approval in June 2010, in the aftermath of one of the worst environmental disasters in history.
- Paris Hilton — 15 percent approval. Really? Who can explain such things? Perhaps if we had more coverage of Congress in the tabloids, that might boost their ratings at least this high (or perhaps not).
- Human Cloning — 17 percent of Americans support cloning of humans for scientific purposes. I suppose that's fine, as long as no one suggests cloning Members of Congress. That would be really bad.
- George W. Bush at the low-point of his popularity — 23 percent approval, more than twice as high as Congress today, and that was in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, from which we are still trying to recover.
- Richard Nixon's approval rating just before his resignation in 1974 — 24 percent approval, and that was in the midst of the Watergate scandal, which was enough to prompt a major reform campaign.
- "Caning" to discipline teens — 36 percent support, in a poll taken not long after the 1994 controversy over the caning of an American teenager in Singapore. Hey, that gives me an idea: What if we "caned" Members of Congress every time they failed to produce a balanced budget, or insulted our intelligence with some ridiculous new policy? Now we’re getting somewhere.
The one bright spot: Congress is more popular among Americans than one prominent world leader: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. The South American dictator had only a 9 percent approval rating in 2007, two points lower than this Congress today. There, we finally found someone we like less. I feel better, don’t you?
Let's face it, when you reach the point where nine out of ten Americans are basically disgusted with your performance, and your approval ratings are less than half what Richard Nixon's were, it's time to ask some fundamental questions about what you're doing and how you're doing it. How much more of a wake-up call do you need?
The reasons for this appalling level of contempt for Congress are pretty clear. Partisan gridlock, ideological posturing and special interest pressures have driven the public will right out of the equation, and everyone knows it. As a result, decisions become irrational and often lack common sense, or nothing gets done at all. When was the last time we actually passed a budget?
It doesn't have to be this way.
The fact that Americans had higher regard for BP's handling of the Gulf oil spill than for the job Congress is doing handling the nation's affairs is a pretty sobering indictment, but Americans' perceptions are correct. The train is off the tracks, the chickens have come home to roost, Elvis has left the building. You get the picture. We are a nation adrift, and we need strong corrective action.
Maybe it's time we started paying a lot more attention to the health of our democracy, the sorry state of our public discourse, the dysfunction of key institutions like the U.S. Congress, the news media, and our current approach to public engagement, and start doing something to fix it. As citizens of this country, that's our job.
What do you think would improve the workings of Congress and our political system in general? Let’s hear from you.