Members of Congress are used to working in an institution that gets no respect, but a recent plunge to the bottom of confidence ratings – and a week back home with constituents riled over gas prices – is raising alarms even on thick-skinned Capitol Hill.
Some Democrats blame the Republicans, especially GOP senators who have used procedural maneuvers to block votes on key legislation.
"It's worrisome, but I understand it: The strategy of the Republicans has been to stop anything from happening – and people think that nothing is being done to help their lives," says Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D) of Michigan.
Some Republicans worry that the public doesn't know enough about Congress to blame the right party.
"Not only does Congress have an approval rating below bubonic plague and head lice, I saw a recent poll that as many as 40 percent of people still believe that Congress is in Republican hands," says Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R) of Texas. "I wish we could get a little accuracy out there about who is in charge – and let those ratings fall where they may."
A recent Gallup Poll confirms what many lawmakers say they're hearing from their constituents: that confidence in Congress has never been lower. Only 12 percent of Americans say they have a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in Congress as an institution – the lowest level ever for any US institution since Gallup began asking the question 35 years ago. Congressional job approval, a slightly different question, has dropped to 18 percent.
Pollsters say it's tough to sort out why Congress now ranks so low. "In general, Americans are responding negatively to everything we put in front of them," says Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll in Princeton, N.J. Government institutions, especially, are at or near their lowest ratings to date.
But when pollsters ask if voters think that their local member of Congress deserves to be reelected, the response is usually positive. More than 90 percent of incumbents who opt to stay in Congress are typically reelected.
"Typically, the local congressman is held in higher regard as a person than the institution they're a part of," says Mr. Newport. It's a trend pollsters also see in questions about confidence in the medical system, public education, and law enforcement, he adds.
This view that voters can at the same time harbor contempt for Congress but also respect for their local congressman has settled into the culture on Capitol Hill.
"When times are very tough as they are now, people feel upset, and I don't think folks distinguish between the House of Representatives and the Senate," says Rep. Paul Hodes (D) of New Hampshire. "What they see is that Congress isn't helping or that Congress hasn't been able to get it done. [But] my constituents will see that I'm on the right side of the issues they care about."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi links the low ratings to Congress's inability to end the war in Iraq or deliver on promises to lower gas prices. "I think one of the reasons that Congress is at an all-time low in confidence with the American people is that we did not end the war – and these issues that relate to energy," she said at a Monitor breakfast on June 24.
Rep. Patrick McHenry (R) of North Carolina, who has often squared off with Mr. Frank, says that he could say "it's a Democrat thing, because it's a Democrat-controlled Congress, but it's really due to the fact that we're not addressing the American people's problems: high gas prices, out-of-control spending, soft economy, and the housing crunch."
"Generally, the American people are sour on our economic outlook and all institutions," he adds. "I tell constituents that I'm fighting the crowd up here as much as I can."
"The public sees us as mired in partisan bickering in the face of persistent problems that remain to be addressed," says freshman Rep. Hank Johnson (D) of Georgia. "Though I disagree with that sentiment, I certainly understand it. But notwithstanding that popular sentiment, the public generally likes their individual representatives. Those who do not have their confidence will not come back."