Public confidence in the US Congress is at a historic low, with 12 per cent of respondents to a recent Gallup poll expressing confidence in the legislature. It is the worst rating Gallup has found for any institution in the 35-year history of this question. Will the low approval have an impact on the November elections?
Voters accuse Congress of fostering a crippling partisanship that has led to inertia, overspending, failure to end the Iraq war or stand up to President George W. Bush and inattention to the needs of the American people. There is also anger at the continued scandals and unethical behaviour of members.
Public trust in Congress has been dismal since the early 1960s, but this new low has members of Congress worried about the 2008 election. Even so, there is usually a paradox in public attitudes: voters dislike the institution, but re-elect their members at high rates. Incumbents have been re-elected in the 90 per cent and above range for the past 30 years and there is little evidence that poor evaluations have had demonstrable effects on elections. Will this year be different?
What is the foundation for the dissatisfaction? Consider these factors, which have become more pronounced in recent years. The public clash of egos and bickering, combined with the complexity of the institution (more than 200 committees and subcommittees), the partisan stalemate and the overall messiness of Congress contrast with the immediate needs of the public. It is easy to stop policies, delay appropriations and slow down reforms but hard to move legislation. The primary functions of Congress are lawmaking (solving public problems), representation (of the public interest and constituency interests over specialised interests) and scrutiny of the executive branch. Congress is doing poorly on all accounts and Americans know it.
Will Democrats or Republicans be blamed for these failures? It is early, but a Democratic party wave is building in House races and significant gains may be made in the Senate. In a June Washington Post-ABC poll, 52 per cent of respondents said they would support the Democratic candidate in their local congressional race compared with 37 per cent who said they would vote Republican. Both presidential candidates, Barack Obama and John McCain, are running against Washington (and Congress) and calling for change in the way Washington works. Epiphanies are few in Congress: change comes from elections. There will be change in the election; it will be substantial and favour Democrats.
Several factors are at play. The number of safe Republican seats in the House has shifted dramatically towards Democratic challengers. With Democrats holding 236 seats and Republicans only 199, and only 20 seats competitive for the Democrats but 33 competitive races for the Republicans, Republicans have to be worried. Moreover, Democrats surprisingly won in three recent special elections that were solid Republican districts. The predicted gain for Democrats of 10 to 20 seats in the House brings them into a strong position to implement their policies in 2009.
Democrats are also benefiting from a historic surge of new voter registrations, an unprecedented financial edge and the recruitment of quality challengers. Democratic candidates are taking advantage of damage to the “Republican brand”, including the low ratings of the current president, continued Republican scandals (the latest being the indictment of Senator Ted Stevens from Alaska) and the retirement of moderate Republicans. These may be enough to dilute the power of incumbency that has thrived in the atmosphere of little or no competition.
In the Senate, Democrats have a chance to solidify their tentative majority. Currently the partisan split is 51-49 (with two independents voting with the Democrats). There are 10 competitive Senate seats (nine held by Republicans) that are too close to call, 13 solid or leaning-Republican seats and 12 solid or leaning-Democratic seats. A strong wave in favour of the Democrats will translate into more seats but it is not likely they will attain the 60 seats needed for a filibuster-proof Senate, which will leave continued deadlock.
This is shaping up to be the year that Americans’ negative view of Congress matters, and at least some members should be worried.
Coupled with the low public approval of Mr Bush, a bad economy and an unpopular war, the distrust and anger felt towards Congress as an institution is likely to be directed at and felt by the Republicans.
The writer is director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington