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Why Congress is a favorite GOP whipping boy

Next to President Obama – and each other – the foibles of Congress have provided an easy target for small-government-is-better GOP presidential candidates.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, arrives to talk with reporters as the House returns to work from its winter recess, Wednesday on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Now facing historic lows in opinion polls, Congress has become one of the favorite whipping boys of Republicans on the campaign trail this year.

Next to President Obama – and each other – the foibles of Congress have provided an easy target for small-government-is-better GOP presidential candidates. 

The near-shutdowns, the near default, the first-ever downgrade on the national credit rating (attributed to “political brinkmanship” in Congress), the pork, the scandals – it’s all grist for a campaign where all players aim to position themselves as the outsider.

Outsiders need insiders, and for most of the GOP primary field, that insider is Congress.

“Denunciations of Congress have a long history,” says John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. “The new wrinkle in 2012 is that Republicans are slamming Congress, even though their party controls the House and has at least a 50-50 chance of winning the Senate.”

The most conspicuous Congress-basher in the race, Texas Gov. Rick Perry earlier in his campaign called for turning Congress into a part-time job – halving pay, staff, and time spent in Washington. He says what’s wrong with Congress is that it spends too much money and passes laws, such as the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform bill, that “strangle the country with regulations.” The solution is to “deconstruct the permanent political class in the legislative branch,” he said in a recent campaign ad.

Former members of Congress are especially vulnerable to attacks on the institution, in part because their personal voting records cover a vast sweep of laws, many of them unpopular. Under attack for his vote in favor of the 2002 No Child Left Behind Law, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania this week backed off his vote.

“I’m a strong conservative, but I’m not perfect,” he said during Monday’s GOP presidential debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C.  “We should repeal all of the federal government’s role in primary and secondary education, and if you give me the opportunity, I’ll do that,” he added.

For his part, at town meetings in New Hampshire, Santorum often targeted Congress for not playing straight with voters on issues such as entitlements. In Brentwood, N.H., on Jan. 4, he criticized Congress for raising the retirement age for Social Security in a bill that didn’t take effect for more than 20 years. “That way nobody blames them,” he said.

For eight-term Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, the failings of Congress provide constant material for stump speeches. He refers to members of Congress as “big spenders” who would “drive the country into bankruptcy,” but fail to defend personal liberty, especially after the 9/11 attacks.

“We Americans never have to give up on liberty on the pretext that we’ll have more security,” he said at a rally in Nashua, N.H.  To back up the point, he recalled conversations with members of Congress who wanted to vote down the 2001 USA Patriot Act, passed in haste after the 9/11 attacks, but feared explaining the vote to people back home. “That is your job to go back home and explain it!” he said, to cheers from some 1,000 supporters.  

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney calls for getting Congress out of the Medicaid business by sending the program back to the states, and entirely repealing the signature legislative act of the last Congress, health-care reform, “to get our balance sheet right.” He would also dismantle Congress’s ineffectual campaign finance laws, which he sees as empowering outside groups instead of candidates. 

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich proposes reining in Congress’s scope of action, such as consolidating 185 different federal bureaucracies that deal low-income Americans and converting congressional funding to a single block grant, to be controlled by states.

Congress was also a prime target in stump speeches of former Gov. Jon Huntsman of Utah, who exited the race on Monday. “Congress ought to abide by the same laws, rules, and regulations as everybody else, including insider trading,” he said at a town hall meeting in Newport, NH. He was referring to a fracas that arose from an August study that found that senators outperform the general public in the market by 12 percent on an annual basis.

With approval ratings at record lows, bashing Congress is a low-risk proposition for presidential hopefuls.  A Washington Post/ABC News poll released this week puts Congress’s approval rating at 13 percent. A Gallup poll last month puts that rating at 11 percent, also a record low for that survey.

“Part of presidential campaigns is to talk about how broken things are and how hard it is to get things done,” says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University.

“Most people don’t follow Congress a lot of the time, and a majority of what they’re hearing in presidential campaigns is how broken, dysfunctional, and corrupt Congress is,” he adds. “It just fuels the plummeting disapproval ratings and exacerbates the ongoing tension between the executive and legislative branches.”

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