Congress Really Is As Bad As You Think, Scholars Say

Dec 27, 2011
Originally published on December 29, 2011 10:41 am

Congressional approval ratings are on the rocks, hovering in or near single digits for the first time since pollsters started measuring them. But just how bad is the current congressional stalemate?

Thomas Mann, senior fellow of governance studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, is working on a book about Congress with a title that provides a succinct answer: It's Even Worse Than It Looks.

In modern history, Mann says, "there have been battles, delays, brinkmanship — but nothing quite like this."

The book, written with co-author Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, is a follow-up to a 2006 book by the pair called The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track.

Mann acknowledges there have been worse times for Congress, but he reaches back a very long way for a comparison.

"There were a few really bruising periods in American congressional history, not only the run-up to the Civil War, but also around the War of 1812," he says.

A Gallup poll published earlier this month found that just 11 percent of Americans approve of Congress' performance. A whopping 86 percent gave a thumbs-down. That's the lowest rating since Gallup started taking the public pulse on this issue in 1974. A similar poll conducted by The Associated Press registered a 12 percent approval rating, and a CBS/New York Times poll in October placed Congress' approval rating at 9 percent.

Lawmakers are acutely aware of the failing grades they're getting from the pundits and the public alike. After punting two months down the field on the payroll tax cut, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) clearly registered his disgust.

"Washington needs to stop adding confusion and more uncertainty to people's lives," he said.

Mann isn't the only one dusting off the history books for an analog to the current impasse.

"I think you'd have to go back to the 1850s to find a period of congressional dysfunction like the one we're in today," says Daniel Feller, a professor of U.S. history at the University of Tennessee.

Feller, who specializes in the Jacksonian, Antebellum and Civil War periods, points specifically to 1849-1860 when Congress sometimes struggled for months to even elect a speaker of the House.

Other periods of governmental deadlock include Andrew Johnson's Reconstruction presidency, Woodrow Wilson's conflict with Congress over the League of Nations and the fights between President Truman and the "do-nothing" 80th Congress in 1947-48.

"None of those involved the level of conflict within Congress itself that we see today," Feller says.

In the pantheon of also-rans for least effective Congresses, Mann would add a contentious period circa 1910 when long-serving Republican House Speaker Joseph Cannon was ousted from his post mostly by renegades in his own party. There were also bruising fights over the Depression-era New Deal.

In fact, Mann points out that despite its pejorative "do-nothing" moniker, the Truman-era Congress actually did manage to pass one historic package of legislation — the Marshall Plan, which threw an economic lifeline to a Europe devastated by World War II.

"There have been plenty of times when the rhetorical heat has been high, sometimes higher than now," Feller says. "What's most amazing today is not fiery words, but the inability to do necessary business."

If today's Congress really is the least effective since before the Civil War, "it's disappointing, but not surprising," Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia says.

And the stalemate occurs at a time when America can afford only "the smallest margin for error," he says.

"For most of my lifetime growing up, America was so far ahead of every other country — economically, educationally, on infrastructure," he says. "But those leads don't exist any more."

Warner says he's looked for the people who say they approve of Congress' performance.

"I go out and I ask people, 'Are you part of the 9 percent that thinks we're doing a good job?'" he says. "And I have yet to find anyone who will raise their hand."

But Warner believes the tide is beginning to turn and that "more cooperation" is on some lawmakers' lists of New Year's resolutions.

"I am actually going into the next year more optimistic," he said. "I know this problem isn't going away. It's going to require both sides being willing to take on both revenue and entitlements. I think there's a growing recognition of that. And I'm going to hang in there."

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