Let's Pump the Brakes on Congressional Approval Bashing

Let me start with this: yes, America hates Congress. With few exceptions Congress very rarely enjoys high job approval. Job disapproval is in some ways built into the institution’s DNA. However, recently it has been common for people to equate what they – rightly – perceive as poor legislative performance with poor approval. Research tells us this is only part of the case. Scholars have shown Congressional job approval is influenced by a wide variety factors ranging from economic growth, to partisan conflict, to whether Congress has passed major legislation. Unsurprisingly, several studies show Congress’s job approval drops when the economy is doing poorly. Partisan conflict has also been shown to have a negative effect on congressional approval (Ramirez 2009). And perhaps most interestingly, congressional approval often drops after it passes major legislation.

gallup cong approvalBut there are also structural features that underlie the dismal state of today’s congressional approval. Several years ago scholars linked congressional approval to partisan affiliation. When both chambers are controlled by one party, partisans that identify with that party are more likely to approve of Congress. In the 1990s Republicans had a high opinion of Congress and the job it was doing. When Democrats held the majority, roughly 40 to 60 percent of Democratic identifiers and leaners approved of Congress. The graph above illustrates how trends in partisan approval track – fairly closely – control of both chambers.

Taken together, the last few years have been a perfect storm of congressional disapproval . The economic recession and a weak recovery coupled with high partisan conflict has certainly taken its toll. But exacerbating those underlying factors has been divided control of Congress. Neither party controls the majority in Congress. Therefore, partisan support that normally props up congressional approval when one party controls the institution is gone. If you include the low approval numbers of each party, it is easy to see why approval is dismally low.

If one party controlled all of Congress, it is likely approval would rebound substantially but not overwhelmingly. There are too many factors depressing approval – partisan conflict, weak economy, etc. – for it to reach the levels it enjoyed in the mid-1960s and early-2000s. But this knowledge does temper our opinion of those articles arguing that America hates Congress. Yes, the nation hates Congress. But in many ways, they really hate a Congress divided between the two parties.