Andrew L. Yarrow: Americans' view of Congress is bad for our democracy

August 9, 2013 

Much has been made of Congress' dismal approval ratings. A Rasmussen poll this summer found they had dipped below 10 percent. Sen. John McCain noted that Congress is less liked than a colonoscopy.

It is tragic and dangerous that Americans have so little respect for a key institution of their democracy. If a poll could have been freely conducted in the former Soviet Union, it is unlikely that so many Soviet citizens would have had such a low opinion of their government.

Let's think what a 10 percent rating really means. If a student got 10 percent on an exam, he or she would fail and be put in a remedial class. If an employee was rated 10 on a scale of 1 to 100 on a performance review, he or she would probably be fired.

So, why do so few of us care that Congress is so despised? Maybe we see failure and call a spade a spade.

For one thing, Congress gets little done. The 112th Congress, which ended in 2012, passed fewer bills than any Congress in recent memory, and the current 113th Congress is on track to do just as badly. Despite strong support for modest gun control and immigration reform, legislation dies in that black hole known as the House of Representatives.

What Congress does do often seems patently ridiculous. House Republicans have voted more than three dozen times to repeal Obamacare. Whatever one thinks of the law, they knew that the Democratic-controlled Senate would never go along and, even if it did, President Barack Obama would veto the bill.

The sequester may now seem "normal," but how absurd is it to reach a so-called budget agreement in 2011 that would result in across-the-board cuts to programs, whether they are good or bad? Congress gave itself a year and a half to reach a real deal to prevent this train wreck, but it failed.

Then there is what we call partisanship but really is more like 3-year-olds fighting in a sandbox. In July, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell called Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid the "worst leader ever." Rep. Joe Wilson famously interrupted a presidential address to Congress by calling the president a liar, sounding like someone in the bleachers who'd had one too many beers. Strict party-line votes are now more the rule than the exception; many Republican members who once acknowledged that climate change was a threat, once called for a health-care plan much like what became Obamacare, and once voted for raising the minimum wage now march in lock step with their "Just say no" leadership. Better to get nothing done than to give an apparent victory to the enemy.

Congress-hating hasn't always been the norm. For much of the last 40 years, approval ratings for Congress hovered around 40 percent (not great, but an awful lot better than 10 percent), with a spike of 80 percent after Sept. 11. Back when the United States fought and won World War II, created and expanded Social Security, united to fight the Cold War, and sent a man to the moon — Americans respected their government, including Congress.

Once upon a time, the loudest voices in Congress were not the "wacko birds," as McCain aptly described some of the current obstructionists. People from different parties used to seek and find common ground. McCain worked with Democrat Russ Feingold to pass campaign finance reform. Sen. Ted Kennedy worked with President George W. Bush to craft the last big education-reform bill. Further back, President Ronald Reagan and powerful Democratic Rep. Dan Rostenkowski worked together to pass a major tax reform in 1986, and Republican Senate leader Everett Dirksen worked with President Lyndon Johnson to pass the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act.

We're not just missing the comity and compromises of days of yore but also the great "lions" of Congress — people like Kennedy and Dirksen — whose leadership set standards for decent lawmaking behavior. Not pressed to constantly raise funds, members hung out in Washington, got to know those across the aisle, and realized they were people they could work with. And before congressional districts got so bizarrely gerrymandered to protect incumbents, most Democrats and Republicans were in competitive districts where they had to respect the views of the minority if they wanted to get re-elected.

What are the answers? We need to reduce the role of money in politics; get members of opposing parties to develop personal, respectful relationships; create competitive districts using independent redistricting commissions; and find some new "lions." And then ramp up public pressure to get something done, rather than just fight.

Of course, these things are easier said than done. But we must try. Thoughtful leaders who can compromise and get the people's business done, rather than wacko birds fighting in the sandbox, will win respect from more than 10 percent of the American people.

Yarrow is a public policy professional, historian and author.



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