I recommend an excellent essay from political scientist Josh Huder about why Congress is so unpopular, both in general and right now. As he notes, it has to do with the nature of the institution itself, not the (mis)behavior of its Members: “disapproval is built into the institution’s DNA.” Best cite: to a study that shows passage of major legislation actually tends to hurt Congressional approval, although note that the finding there is not uncontested. If, however, both passage of major legislation and gridlock can both hurt Congress’s approval, then perhaps (and this is only wild speculation) the 111th has been hurt by both its historic productivity and the much-remarked incorrect perception of gridlock. I don’t know.
Now, on the other hand, Huder doesn’t emphasize the cultural reasons for why Americans hate Congress—but he does, fortunately, provide an excellent example. In a post about how Congress is unfairly maligned, Huder writes about the history of internal improvements, and his examples of people who pushed projects are...George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower. Not that he’s wrong, but just to point out the overwhelming cultural bias in favor of crediting the big things that happen to presidents, not Congress. We do this reflexively...Barack Obama got DADT repeal through, after Bill Clinton failed. Barack Obama failed to pass energy/climate legislation. Yes, we’ll occasionally get articles about how Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi are doing, and every once in a while we’ll have some attention to the individual legislative entrepreneurs who did the bulk of the work, but most of the time it’s going to be the president that we think of.
And that’s even more true as we go back through time: quick, when’s the last time you even saw Tom Foley’s name, let alone saw him blamed for some of the failures during Bill Clinton’s first two years in office? Or Hubert Humphrey and the reformers of the (House) Democratic Study Group given the credit for civil rights legislation? Certainly, JFK and LBJ deserve their share of the credit, but as you’ll recall from the 2008 Democratic primary debate about civil rights, we think in terms of LBJ vs. MLK, and HHH is mainly remembered...is he remembered at all today? I suspect if so, it’s by aging boomers who still resent him from the 1968 campaign, or by Tom Lehrer aficionados who remember him for being forgotten.
For a corrective, read David Mayhew’s America’s Congress, which emphasizes the individual contributions Members of Congress have made to specific legislation. Or, see Nelson W. Polsby’s classic essay, “Congress-Bashing For Beginners.” Still, I don’t pretend that it can be changed. I’ll quote myself: “People always hate Congress. Mark Twain hated Congress. Will Rogers hated Congress. Johnny Carson hated Congress. Jay Leno hates Congress, and I suppose the disembodied head of Jay Leno will be hating Congress decades into the future.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to figure out why this particular Congress, at this particular time, has such comparatively low approval ratings. Just remember, when you’re thinking about it, to place it in the great American tradition of Congress-bashing.