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As the 111th Congress wraps up its term, incoming lawmakers have nowhere to go but up — maybe.
Only 13 percent of Americans currently approve of the job their federal lawmakers are doing, according to the latest Gallup survey. That's the lowest point since the poll started in 1974.
The poll, based on phone interviews with more than 1,000 people Dec. 10-12, comes as Congress finishes a contentious lame-duck session following bitter midterm elections in which voters vented their dissatisfaction by booting many incumbents — mostly Democrats — out of office. The 83 percent disapproval rate is the worst since July 2008, according to Gallup.
"Congress has never been a popular institution. No one defends it, not even the congressmen themselves, who tend to run against it," said Lee Hamilton, an Indiana Democrat who served in the House for more than three decades.
So what will it take for lawmakers to get back in Americans' better graces?
Congress Is A Favorite Target
Congress' popularity could rebound in the next few months the way it did after midterm power shifts in 1994 and 1997, but it's a long climb back to the break-even point. The last time voters approved as much as they disapproved of the legislative branch for an extended period was in the mid-1980s, when Barry Goldwater was still the senior senator from Arizona and Tip O'Neill was speaker of the House.
"When the public is pessimistic, as they are now, Congress takes a beating," said Hamilton, who is now director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University.
Warren Rudman, a Republican senator from New Hampshire from 1980 to 1993, agrees that the public loves to hammer on Congress, though when election time comes, incumbents tend to get returned — "with the exception of a year like this one."
The bottom line, he believes, is that Congress has no hope of burnishing its image with two wars and unemployment hovering around 10 percent.
I can almost guarantee that if you woke up tomorrow and unemployment was at 5 percent, the Taliban were gone and Iraq had a stable government, Congress wouldn't look quite so bad.Former Sen. Warren Rudman (R-NH)
"I can almost guarantee that if you woke up tomorrow and unemployment was at 5 percent, the Taliban were gone and Iraq had a stable government, Congress wouldn't look quite so bad," said Rudman, who is now chairman of the Albright Stonebridge Group, a Washington, D.C.-based business consultancy.
'Partisanship Has Become Weaponized'
Even when times are good, lawmakers can't expect much better than about 40 percent approval, according to Thomas Mann, an expert on Congress at the Brookings Institution.
But in an era of "delay and discredit" and partisan bickering, it's no surprise that lawmakers have fallen so low in the eyes of voters, said Mann, author of The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track.
"Some contentious debate in Congress is healthy if it is then followed by a process of bargaining and compromise," he said. "But that's not what we're getting."
Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University, notes that Congress has always been a partisan place. "That's in its DNA," he said. "But the partisanship has become weaponized."
Baker points to the media and the "pernicious effect" of special interest groups in the past three decades as the proximate cause of the big, negative, shift in the political bedrock.
"The more outrageous you are, the more likely you are to appear on the evening news," Rudman agreed. "Obviously, we've become a more partisan nation. Most people don't like what they see — more squabbling."
That more lawmakers are having their voices heard these days is laudable, Hamilton said, though there's something to be said for institutionalists — members of Congress who had to earn admission to the club.
"When I went to the House, you weren't expected to say anything for the first four or five terms," he said. "Now, we have a big increase in the number of junior members who, through the media, have gained a national platform."
Baker also thinks interest groups that began rating politicians for their ideological purity are partly to blame for the polarization. Groups on both the left and the right began demanding "ironclad fidelity," he said.
"These groups were always putting Congress on notice that unless they do something that's pleasing to them, there will be negative consequences," said Baker, who has served as an adviser to both Republicans and Democrats.
Hamilton said Congress needs to "focus more on making the country work and less on gaining partisan advantage."
The Curse Of The 24-Hour News Cycle
As much as lawmakers seem to love the TV cameras, the rise of 24-hour news networks as well as the Internet and radio mega-networks has created more transparency about how Congress works. That may be more a curse than a blessing for Congress' image.
Baker said the coverage has shone a harsh light on a legislative process that is inelegant by nature and poorly understood by most Americans. "Much of what they do is incomprehensible to most people — it's labyrinthine and inscrutable," he said.
He added: "I suspect most people think Congress is inefficient, but what they don't realize is that it was designed to be inefficient."
A perfect example is the often unflattering spectacle of the Senate filibuster, whereby the minority can stymie the will of a majority of lawmakers, Baker says.
Mann of the Brookings Institution also points out that lawmakers may not get credit where it's due. Most people think of the president as the government, so the executive branch may win praise for a popular law even though it's Congress that wrote it.
"Even when Congress does good things, it seldom gets credit for it," he says. "It's just the nature of the institution."