Congress more unpopular than Donald Trump, head lice

A new poll shows just how deeply, eye-poppingly unpopular Congress has become. But are voters partly to blame for lawmakers' failures?

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
The US Capitol is seen amid reflections from inside the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 2.

It may be a cheap shot. But we couldn't resist commenting on the latest Public Policy Polling survey measuring just how deeply, down-there-with-sewer-rats-and-root-canals unpopular Congress is these days with the American people. 

To wit: When given the opportunity to choose which they held in higher regard, voters actually picked all of the following over Congress:

Donald Trump

Genghis Khan

Used car salesmen

NFL replacement refs

Head lice

As the PPP press release commented: "It's gross to have lice, but at least they can be removed in a way that, given the recent reelection rates, members of Congress evidently can't." For the record, lice were favored over Congress by 67 to 19 percent.

Sure, it's a funny poll. And in lawmakers' defense, they actually did score higher than the Kardashians, playground bullies, North Korea, and Gonorrhea. (Although in a way, those results simply validate the overall poll – showing that respondents actually gave their rankings some thought, rather than simply giving Congress the lowest possible rating to make a point.)  

But we also find it a little disturbing that Congress is now so widely seen as a laughingstock or worse. Congressional approval ratings have been at historic lows for some time now, and Congress-bashing has become a national pastime. The sentiment stems from a number of trends –including a growing lack of trust in institutions in general. But above all, it's a clear reflection of the public's frustration with legislators' inability to come together and resolve the nation's most pressing fiscal problems.

It's worth noting that a significantly less funny version of the PPP poll also came out this week. On Monday, Gallup released a survey showing that 77 percent of Americans believe that the way politics works in Washington is causing "serious harm" to the nation. Let's repeat that: In the eyes of most Americans, Congress is not just inept, but is causing serious harm. And the sentiment was pretty bipartisan, including 87 percent of Republicans, 79 percent of independents, and 68 percent of Democrats.

As Gallup noted, those numbers track pretty closely with the current, paltry 18-percent job approval rating for Congress. Likewise, confidence in Congress as an institution is down to a pathetic 13 percent. 

Maybe it's the mom in us, but we've come to learn that expectations matter. If the public wants their representatives to make tough decisions, they have to have some confidence that they can do it.

Perhaps more to the point, they have to want them to do it – and there's the rub, since there is also plenty of evidence to suggest that in fact, voters may not really want Congress step up to the plate when it comes to tough budget decisions. Sure, they say they want lawmakers to reduce the debt. But poll after poll shows there's very little public support for most of the specific, painful spending cuts and/or higher taxes that would have to happen to really get the nation's fiscal house in order.

As a McClatchy-Marist poll last month documented, voters by wide margins were opposed to: cutting spending on Medicare, raising the Medicare eligibility age, cutting spending on Medicaid, eliminating the home mortgage tax deduction, or eliminating the charitable contribution deduction. When voters are sending such mixed signals, is it any wonder that Congress winds up stalemated?

It's easy for the public to make members of Congress the bad guys. But we wonder if all this ridicule – along with the cynical expectation that lawmakers will probably fail to resolve the really serious budget issues they face – doesn't on some level just let Congress off the hook? Until Americans are really willing to back the kinds of decisions they say they want Congress to make – well, the joke's on us.

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