Congress has a black eye, and it’s starting to swell. As an institution, its approval ratings bounce near all time lows, creating a crisis in confidence among voters. Can Americans count on an institution so anemic in trust to heal the difficult and major problems confronting the nation?
Many believe the legislative branch is insular, arrogant, and dominated by special interests -- and not without cause.
The current Democratic majority’s polarizing behavior has only reinforced these views by passing partisan and controversial legislation -- like the health care bill -- opposed by a majority of Americans, according to the most recent average of polls aggregated at Real Clear Politics.
The House and Senate will never win popularity contests. Congress underperforms other institutions when it comes to stirring good feelings. Analyzing polling data from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s, political scientists John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse in their book Congress as Public Enemy: Public Attitudes Toward American Political Institutions show the legislature nearly always lags the presidency and the Supreme Court when it comes to public confidence.
This pattern continues today. President Obama’s approval now hovers around the 48 percent mark, but Congress’s is only half that (23 percent), according to Real Clear Politics.
Historically, incumbent lawmakers took comfort in the often cited argument by University of Rochester political scientist Richard Fenno, who asked in a 1975 article, “If Congress Is The ‘Broken Branch’ Why Do Americans Love their Congressmen So Much?” Fenno demonstrated Americans support their congressmen more than Congress as an institution.
But today even this customary love for incumbents is on the rocks. A recent CNN poll found the percent of Americans who think their own Congressman deserves reelection is at an all time low.
Not letting congressional approval sink too low is critical for the country and our ability to address future problems. If support falls much further, faith in the legitimacy of the entire system could collapse.
Is there an answer?
Some lawmakers propose a novel solution, one that flies in the face of conventional power perceptions about Washington politicians. Borrowing from the tradition of “servant leadership,” this approach holds some promise for boosting Congress’s sagging image.
Throughout the centuries this idea has animated discussions of how to lead. Many say a 1970 essay by Robert K. Greenleaf, "The Servant as Leader," first applied the idea to the management of large institutions.
But until recently, the notion of “servant leadership” seemed foreign to Congress. Politicians are cold-blooded narcissists, not other-directed helpers. Candidates promote themselves – not us. They accumulate power and cut deals. That’s how they get elected.
The perception of Congress as self-seeking, self-interested, and self-promoting shakes voters’ confidence in the institution.
Some House Republican members want to change that opinion. Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio meets with his staff annually to hammer out a set of goals and objectives for the year. They produce a detailed vision statement that guides their work as a team for the legislative session.
This year they added the goal of “servant leadership” as an objective. Boehner and his staff urged all House Republicans to adopt this model as an approach to working with their constituents and colleagues in Congress. It’s an attitudinal shift with major political consequences.
Dave Schnittger, Boehner’s deputy chief of staff for communications told me this in an email last week: "Servant leadership is the antithesis of the arrogance Americans have seen from a Democratic-controlled Washington that has repeatedly defied the will of the people on the biggest issues facing our country,” Schnittger wrote. “It requires humility; a willingness to listen; and recognition that the American people are the ones in charge. Americans have a right to expect their elected leaders to project this kind of attitude. And this year they're demanding it."
Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, chairman of the House Republican Conference agrees. Walking into the offices of the GOP Conference in the Longworth House Office Building, the words “servant leadership” appear on the wall as part of the House Republicans’ core objectives.
Boehner and Pence are on to something. Voters want a Congress that works for the people, not just for political elites. Yet the lexicon of Washington doesn’t put lawmakers in that role. The crafting of legislation includes powerbrokers, influence peddlers and self-interested politicians, not servant leaders.
Hearing lawmakers talk about this new vision is simultaneously jarring, refreshing and healing -- an ice-pack on the inflammation of public discontent.