On Monday, Gallup released the first post-election approval numbers for Congress. The result: 18% approval, 75% disapproval. To an outsider, such disgust might be perceived as a sign of trouble for the American political system. But we know better.
The real question is: Why do we keep measuring congressional approval?
Despite alarmingly high disapproval ratings, members of Congress are reelected at surprisingly high rates, often exceeding 85 percent. This phenomenon of hating Congress but apparently liking your individual member of Congress is known as “Fenno’s paradox,” after the political scientist Richard Fenno, and is about as close to scientific law as there is in political science.
What is perhaps most shocking is the remarkably low level at which congressional approval has stabilized at over the last five years. According to Gallup, in the last 18 months, approval has peaked above 20 percent just twice (October 2012 and May 2011), and not since September of 2009 has congressional approval been above 30 percent.
In fact, the yearly average in three of the last four years has been less than 20 percent; 2009 was a banner year in that the 12-month average was a whopping 30.08 percent.
Approval from less than a third of the American public is hardly something to write home about. Going back even further, approval has not breached the 40 percent mark since February of 2005, a span of more than 7 ½ years, two presidential elections and four congressional elections. The breakeven point of 50 percent approval was last reached in June of 2003!
Some have argued that approval of Congress does matter. Political scientists David Jones and Monika McDermott demonstrate that the American public does seem to respond to shifts in party control in Congress, and that members of Congress do pay attention to the whims of public opinion.
But with such little movement in the numbers, particularly since 2010, I question whether such metrics now matter. The current debate over the looming “fiscal cliff” will do nothing but keep approval numbers in the teens, if not lower. But I guess that’s okay.
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This post was written by Chris Larimer on November 27, 2012