American voters’ disregard for Congress keeps setting new records. You think the nation views its lawmakers as dimly as possible – then things get worse.
The latest news on this front comes from a Washington Post/ABC News poll released Tuesday morning. It finds that a majority of US voters now disapprove of their incumbent House representatives. That’s the first time this particular measure has passed the 50 percent mark in 25 years of Post/ABC surveys.
A little background is probably in order here. Generally speaking, voters believe that Congress as a body is lower than the ocean floor. It is the least-trusted public institution in the United States, according to most surveys. Just look at this astounding Gallup poll from June: Only 7 percent of respondents said they had a great deal or a lot of confidence in Congress. That’s so few that the Gallup editors don’t even have room to write the number on the bar graph – they just sort of draw a green smudge down at the bottom and leave it at that.
Attitudes weren’t always so negative. In 1973, 42 percent of voters said they had a great deal or a lot of confidence in their lawmakers, according to Gallup. As recently as 2004, this number was 30 percent. And, for a couple of weeks after the 9/11 attacks, confidence in Congress soared to 84 percent. But we digress.
Voters also tend to view their own representative considerably more favorably than Congress as a whole. The problem is those other men and women, apparently. This isn’t surprising, given that the local incumbent is not a nameless blob, but somebody whose newsletter appears in the mailbox with regularity. They appear on local news shaking the hands of scholarship winners, cutting ribbons to open schools, and so forth. This electioneering has some effect.
A new Pew poll, for instance, finds that 69 percent of Americans believe most members of Congress should not be reelected – but only 39 percent of respondents said their own member should be booted out. The difference there is the home-district advantage.
That’s why the results of Tuesday’s Post/ABC poll are so interesting. It’s just one survey, but it shows a growing frustration with local representatives as well as the faceless institution that sits on Capitol Hill. Maybe the nation has reached some kind of tipping point. After all, this Congress is on pace to be the least productive in modern US history, by the measure of producing bills that become laws. Nearly three-quarters of voters said Congress has been very unproductive this year in a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll.
But here is one safe prediction: Even if people are increasingly frustrated with their own lawmakers, the vast majority of incumbents will win reelection in the fall. Any discontent will have an effect only on the margins. Over the past 50 years, the reelection rate for incumbent members of the House has never fallen below 85 percent. Most years, it’s higher – in 2012, it was 90 percent. Voters’ behavior in the election booth is not always consistent with what they tell pollsters they believe.