Public's View Of Congress On the Mend

As House returns today, polls show some of the highest approval ratings in decades.

The collective public profile of Congress has not been particularly flattering in recent years. Members have been reviled as the recipients of taxpayer-financed perks, beholden to corporate captains, and prone to ineffectual bickering. The public's esteem of the nation's legislators at times seems to hover only slightly above dogcatchers.

But a robust economy and a few legislative slam-dunks are producing a positive shift in American perceptions about those who do business inside the Beltway. It is a shift that bodes well for the longevity of those now in office, portending continued strength in particular for Republicans in the 1998 congressional elections.

A series of opinion surveys over the past month reveals that the public approves of the balanced budget and tax cut bills, and in one poll bestows on Congress its highest ratings in more than 20 years.

* A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed 48 percent approving of Congress's job performance, up 9 points from a year ago, with 37 percent viewing it negatively. A majority of 54 percent applauded the balanced-budget deal, while only 24 percent disapproved.

* A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released last week showed lower ratings, with 41 percent approving of Congress's performance and 48 percent disapproving. But it also found that 61 percent favor the budget deal versus 20 percent who oppose it, while 56 percent said most members of Congress deserve reelection - "a remarkable turnaround."

* A survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 66 percent of those surveyed favored reelecting their representative in Congress, "a decade high." It also found that 70 percent approved the budget deal; 18 percent opposed it.

"People are giving Republicans credit for doing their job, for making good on the commitments they made," says Terry Holt, spokesman for the House Republican conference.

"I think voters are happier with the way things are going in Washington," says Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report, based here. "It really has as much to do with how they feel about the direction of the country. That creates a pro-incumbent environment: When there isn't any anger it doesn't leave voters any reason to vote out an incumbent."

Americans are more optimistic about the country's direction, according to most polls. The Pew Center found 49 percent of Americans surveyed are satisfied with the way things are going in the country, almost twice the level of a year ago, "and the first time since the heady days immediately following victory in the Gulf that most of the public is happy with the country's direction."

Not since 1974 ...

Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican-affiliated firm, found congressional approval ratings at the highest level since at least 1974. And 47 percent of those surveyed thought the country was on the right track, the highest percentage this year. A Washington Post-ABC News poll found more pessimism, however, with only 39 percent of those queried saying the country is headed in the right direction.

Observers cite several reasons for the public's increased satisfaction with Washington. The most frequently mentioned is the booming economy. In addition, the public appears to prefer that Congress and the president work together rather than confronting each other as they did during the government shutdowns.

A Republican House aide points out that Congress has done a lot in the last few years to clean up its act: It has brought itself into compliance with federal labor and other laws and has done away with perks such as banking, postal, and parking privileges that were abused in the past.

The aide also adds that many Americans see Washington as less relevant in their lives - a claim supported by a Pew Center finding that Americans' interest in Washington news continues to fall.

On the plus side for the Democrats, President Clinton continues to be more popular than Congress, with very high approval ratings in the high 50s or low 60s, depending on the poll. People say they tend to agree more with Democrats than Republicans on the budget details and the public appears to have a slightly higher regard for congressional Democrats than for congressional Republicans.

CNN/USA Today/Gallup found that Americans want the president rather than the congressional GOP to have more influence over the nation's course next year by a 49 to 41 percent margin. And 50 percent said they would vote Democratic today versus 40 percent choosing the GOP.

Still, "It's particularly good news for Republicans," says Jack Pitney of Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. "Not only for the obvious reason that it bodes well for next year. But these are the kind of numbers that are going to encourage Republican incumbents to run for reelection and that will encourage Republican challengers to run. That will put a damper on Democratic hopes of regaining control of the House, and that in turn will hurt their fund-raising."

Democrats struggle

The Democrats appear to have their work cut out for them in 1998. Senate Democrats do not even talk about retaking that body. And while only 11 seats separate Republicans and Democrats in the House, the Cook Political Report currently gives Democrats only a 20 to 25 percent chance of retaking the lower chamber.

"In a pro-incumbent environment, it's very difficult for the Democrats to take over the House," Ms. Duffy says.

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