Archived Opinion

Americans not stupid, just complacent, about Congress

op congressBy Don Livingston • Guest Columnist

Congress is not our most popular branch of government, not by a long shot. Its lowest job approval rating, according to one respectable polling organization, was 9 percent late last year. Earlier this year, this polling firm found that only 13 percent of the respondents in its scientific survey felt that Congress was doing a decent job. Congress’ average job approval rating since pollsters began probing for such feedback in the 1970s is around 33 percent. That’s certainly nothing to brag about.

One must wonder why the American people tend to have such a negative impression of Congress. Part of the explanation can be attributed to the fact that Americans have always tended to be skeptical and cynical when it comes to politics and politicians. And, frankly, today’s politicians give the American people plenty to be skeptical and cynical about. The sad fact is this distrust of politicians taints the institutions, such as Congress, in which they serve.

 Such cynicism is reinforced when incumbents and challengers running for Congress run against Washington and Congress in order to win favor with suspicious voters. They make much ado about a Washington and Congress that is out of touch with the reality that ordinary citizens face on a daily basis. Challengers, in particular, aver that Congress is populated by professional politicians who owe their seats to powerful special interests that buy access and influence through large campaign contributions.

 The negative attack ads that candidates for Congress run over the airways push the envelope to the breaking point from an ethical perspective. Opponents challenge each other’s records and impugn each other’s character, credibility and integrity. The objective is to define one’s opponent for the voters and smear him or her in the most negative light possible. Those elected thus carry heavy baggage that is hard to shake off when they get to Washington.

 Congress gets a bad rap because of the exorbitant amounts of money that candidates raise and spend in House and Senate campaigns. House campaigns can cost as much as hundreds of thousands of dollars – even millions in some instances. Senate campaigns can run well into the tens of millions of dollars. The money that it takes to wage a successful campaign casts a dark shadow over Capitol Hill. That shadow colors the public’s perception of Congress.

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 The blame game that leaders in Congress play to avoid their party being held accountable for things not getting done also contributes to the public’s dismal view of Congress. Moreover, presidents, often out of frustration and to escape being held personally responsible, blame Congress for things not getting done. Key White House advisers charge that the opposition party in Congress intentionally obstructs and sabotages the president’s efforts to provide effective leadership. Such allegations being hurled back and forth leave voters even more confused and do little to enhance Congress’ image.

 Press coverage of Congress reinforces the negative impression. The media focus on scandal, controversy, gridlock and the politics at play when covering Capitol Hill. Considerably more coverage is focused on those working to derail legislation than those struggling to advance legislation. The press does not have much of anything good to report about Congress.

 Members who succumb to personal temptations and engage in either inappropriate or illegal conduct tarnish Congress’ image. For example, freshman congressman Vance McAllister, a Republican representing Louisiana’s 5th District, was caught on camera kissing a female staffer. McAllister, a father of five and married for 17 years, won a special election to Congress by emphasizing family, faith and hard work. McAllister, when campaigning, said he did not want to be just another politician, but that he wanted to go to Washington to make a difference. The public is rightfully offended and insulted by such hypocrisy.

 Americans cannot help but wonder if representatives and senators understand what it is like to either live in fear of being unemployed, or actually unemployed and unable to find work. They wonder if those on the Hill can actually relate when it comes to stretching a paycheck and purchasing basic necessities. They wonder why the gap between the wealthy and the poor continues to grow. Their concerns are legitimate, especially when one notes that around one-half of the 435 representatives and two-thirds of the 100 senators in the 113th Congress are millionaires. Congress may be characterized as the people’s branch of government, but the reality is its members hail from a social and economic elite.

 The sad part of all of this is that nothing is likely to change anytime soon. Americans aren’t stupid. We’re just too damn complacent. It’s a good thing our Founding Fathers weren’t.

(Don Livingston is a professor of political science and public affairs at Western Carolina University. His field of expertise is the American presidency. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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