What?? Congressional approval rating inches upward

Lawmakers' approval rating may have ticked up a bit, but most voters remain skeptical – even cynical – about Congress. The news that most members now are millionaires doesn't help.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, accompanied by House majority whip Kevin McCarthy of California and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R) of Washington, speak to reporters following a Republican Conference meeting Feb. 4, 2014.

It’s not exactly a stop-the-presses moment, but American voters may be feeling a teensy bit more kindly toward Congress.

That, at least, would be the positive take-away from Gallup’s latest finding, which has lawmakers’ collective approval rating soaring from its all-time low of 9 percent last October to 12 percent in the most recent tally. That’s a 33 percent increase, people!

The main reason? The time elapsed since last year’s government shutdown debacle, plus the recent bipartisan OK for raising the debt ceiling, suggests Frank Newport, Gallup’s editor in chief.

“Elected representatives may be paying attention to the anguished outrage of Americans – who have been giving Congress the lowest approval ratings in history, even as they named dysfunctional government as the most important problem facing the nation,” Mr. Newport wrote this week.

“This February update came prior to the actual [debt ceiling] votes this past week in Congress, so they were not a proximate cause,” Newport wrote. “But clearly there has been less posturing, grandstanding, and talk about the need to shut down government in order to call attention to the need to save it. Maybe some of that is seeping through to the average American.”

Or maybe not. It also could be that real issues (i.e., problems) – not just the posturing and grandstanding – are sinking in deeper.

Forty-three percent, according to Gallup, now see “Unemployment/Jobs” or “Economy in general” as the “most important problem facing the US.” Slipping to third place with 19 percent is “Dissatisfaction with government/Congress/politicians; poor leadership/corruption/abuse of power.”

Gallup’s congressional job approval figures are in line with the average of eight different polls cited by Real Clear Politics. More dour is the result from a Rasmussen Reports phone survey of likely US voters reported this week: Just 8 percent say Congress is doing a “good” or “excellent” job of lawmaking.

“Members of Congress routinely get reelected, but only eight percent think that is because they do a good job representing their constituents,” Rasmussen noted. “Two-thirds believe it’s because election rules are rigged to benefit incumbents. Twenty-six percent are not sure why Congress members almost always get reelected.”

As if that weren’t depressing enough, according to this survey, 59 percent of voters believe most members of Congress are willing to sell their vote for cash or campaign contributions, and 56 percent think it’s at least somewhat likely that their own representative in Congress has sold their vote, including 27 percent who say it’s very likely. 

The difference in perception between what Rasmussen calls “the political class” and average American voters here is clear: “Seventy-six percent of Mainstream voters think members of Congress are usually elected because the election rules are rigged, but just 30 percent of the Political Class agree. Only 17 percent of Political Class voters think most members are willing to sell their vote, a belief held by 68 percent of those in the Mainstream.”

Some of this no doubt is connected to the growing perception that lawmakers really are different than the rest of us – in a way that could reveal envy as well as suspicion.

The Center for Responsive Politics reported recently that for the first time in history, more than half the members of Congress are millionaires.

“The median net worth for the 530 current lawmakers who were in Congress as of the May filing deadline was $1,008,767 – an increase from the previous year when it was $966,000,” the nonpartisan center reported. (The wealthiest member of Congress is Rep. Darrell Issa (R) of California, who had a net worth between $330 million and $598 million.)

“Is it good or bad for the country that most members of Congress are this wealthy, or does it have no impact?” voters were asked in the Rasmussen survey. Seventy percent said it’s bad for the country and just 4 percent said it’s good.

Which may help explain why Congress’s approval rating, while it may have ticked up a bit, is still barely out of single digits.

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