The new numbers from Gallup on congressional job approval are simply stunning. The latest reading finds that just 13 percent of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing, with a whopping 83 percent disapproving. Almost all of the decline in the last month has been among self-identified Democrats, which suggests that this low is due to the tax cut deal, even though Gallup also finds that a majority of Americans approve of it.
Of course, congressional job approval has never been particularly high. It always trails presidential job approval, usually by large amounts. A big part of this, I think, is that Congress is an impersonal institution that, unlike the president, cannot present itself to the public in an effective way. The president is a single person who can give a speech communicating the views of the executive branch clearly and concisely. On the other hand, Congress is composed of 535 people; the only way it communicates to the public is by voting. That's not very effective, so it catches all of the blame while having trouble getting any of the credit.
But that frankly fails to account for the miserable rating that Congress is currently registering. Historically speaking, approval for Congress in the Gallup poll has never been so low:
A -70 net job approval rating cannot be chalked up solely to a failure to communicate! Congress has another, even bigger problem than this, one that has become more noticeable recently and that might account for this unprecedentedly terrible rating. It's not actually a national legislature in the sense that the members of Congress have the national interest at heart. Instead, it's the meeting place of representatives from all the localities, which means that Congress can -- and often does -- have trouble making laws that benefit the national well being. A great example of this problem can be seen in the $8 billion worth of earmarks in the latest spending bill, despite the fact that the budget deficit is reaching dangerous proportions. People are craving strong national leadership, and Congress is simply not the branch of government that is best suited to provide it.
When you get right down to it, Congress is like a two year old. If you leave it to its own devices, Congress and everybody else nearby will be left completely miserable. What Congress needs is strong executive leadership to make sure that it serves the national good. That implies two things. First, the president must be willing to roll his sleeves up and help manage the legislative process. For instance, during the heyday of the Great Society, Lyndon Johnson would talk to as many as 40 members of Congress a day to make sure they were doing what he wanted them to do. Second, the president must offer credible threats to veto legislation that he thinks does not serve the public good. This is easier said than done, of course, as it is often politically safer for the president just to let Congress do what it wants. In his eight years as president, George W. Bush vetoed only 12 bills. So far, Barack Obama has vetoed just 2 bills.
To me, these low numbers are a sign that the executive branch has lately not been doing what needs to be done to keep Congress in line. President Bush was far too tolerant of congressional profligacy and President Obama studiously refused to get himself deeply involved in the policy details of health care reform. The result is that Congress has been left largely to its own devices for the last half decade or so, and its ratings are down to the level where congressional approval is made up entirely of the family and friends of its members!