On the Record

Congress Approval Rating Slides to Lowest Point in 14 Years

Andrew Kohut and Thomas E. Mann

A recent Wall Street Journal poll shows Congress’ approval ratings at its lowest point in 14 years. With midterm elections nearing, public disapproval of the GOP-led Congress may have heavy costs for Republican candidates. Two experts discuss the public’s views.

MARGARET WARNER: Congress has never been wildly popular, but a new Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll out today shows respect for the institution at rock bottom. Only 16 percent of those surveyed approved of the job Congress is doing, tying an all-time low in this poll’s 17-year history; 75 percent disapproved.

When asked to rate the overall performance of this year’s Congress in particular, 56 percent graded it below average or one of the worst. And in a troubling sign for Republicans heading into the midterm elections, 52 percent of those polled said they’d prefer a Democrat-controlled Congress; just 37 percent chose the Republicans.

For more on the dissatisfaction with Congress, the reasons and potential impact, we’re joined by Tom Mann, congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution and co-author of the recent book “The Broken Branch: How Congress is Failing America and How to Get it Back on Track.”

And Andy Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center.

Tom and Andy, welcome back.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Tom, from the title of your book, it seems you believe that, in fact, Congress deserves the low marks they’re getting.

THOMAS MANN, Brookings Institution: They have earned every bit of that 16 percent approval, 75 percent disapproval. And let me rush to say I have never concluded that before. I think Congress is, indeed, the broken branch.

What’s really interesting is that the public’s unhappiness links up in all of its dimensions with what’s actually wrong inside the Congress. Three words: corruption, Iraq, and partisanship.

On the corruption side, we’ve seen the stories and heard in the last segment of the Jack Abramoffs and the Duke Cunninghams, Tom DeLays and the Bob Neys, but it really goes beyond that. In order to protect some of their members, this leadership in the House was willing to basically destroy the ethics process, to fire the Republican members, and then after promising to reform that whole process, decided to do nothing about it. Now, at the end of the Congress, they’re trying to explain their inactions with respect to Mark Foley’s corruption.

On Iraq, Americans are saying, “Well, where was Congress?” The first branch of government is supposed to oversee the president, and they haven’t been doing it.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the Republicans made similar charges against the Democrats that they had — back leading up to the ’94 elections, that they had abused their majority status. Was that correct?

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THOMAS MANN: Yes, it was. Absolutely. Near the end of a 40-year Democratic reign in Congress, you saw this arrogance of power, a willingness to clamp down on the institution, to allow no genuine deliberation in committees, no amendments on the floor, waiving all the rules that allow members to get bills in time to read them before they have to vote on them. But all of that happened under the Democratic reign, but the Republicans came in after ’94 promising to clean up the House and run it according to regular order.

MARGARET WARNER: And so what happened? Why did they fall into the same pattern?

THOMAS MANN: They were trying to govern with a narrow majority, initially facing Bill Clinton, a Democratic president, but trying to hold their troops together.

But it really took off when George Bush moved into the White House, and there was this first united Republican government since the Eisenhower years. And so there was a big push for the Congress to be the lieutenants of the president and take any means necessary to push that program through, which is what led to winning at all costs, the very kind of sentiment that I noticed John Hannah in that last segment said, “The politicians seem genuinely more concerned with maintaining power than doing what’s right for the nation.”

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