Low expectations for Congress

Public approval of Congress is so low that a few Republican optimists dream of overcoming the structural factors favoring the Democrats, holding steady or even gaining seats. They are dreaming. America has a proud tradition of disdain for Congress.

In the run up to the Civil War, the floor of the US House of Representatives became the very first battlefield as northern and southern members would routinely resort to fisticuffs in order to settle arguments or points of personal honor. It was not unusual for Members to come armed with pistols to the floor, ready and willing to offer satisfaction to those who maligned them.

And you thought our Congress was a mean place today?

While the House floor back then could erupt in violence at the drop of the proverbial hat, the Senate was a different story. Here, the well born members had tradition and ceremony to stand on, preferring to leave the fighting to the riff raff over in the House -- until the Spring of 1856.

It was then that the issue of statehood for Kansas roiled the Capitol and men appeared to lose their minds with passion. At the height of this controversy Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner rose to give a speech that skewered slave holders and the "harlot" slavery. Sumner painted slavery in the most sexually suggestive terms imaginable while virtually accusing every slaveholder of raping their female slaves. One of the most horrifying aspects of slavery to the good Puritans of New England was the "freedom of the slave quarters" granted to southern masters (and their house guests). Sumner's words were designed to recall that horror and in the process condemn not only the institution of slavery, but those who practiced it.

Sumner even got specific in his condemnation. He named the fire eating senator from South Carolina Andrew Butler as one of the practitioners:

"The Senator from South Carolina has read many books of chivalry, and believes himself a chivalrous knight, with sentimcuts of honor and courage. Of course he has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight I mean the harlot, Slavery. For her, his tongue is always profuse in words. Let her be impeached in character, or any proposition made to shut her out from the extension of her wantonness, and no extravagance of manner or hardihood of assertion is then too great for this Senator. The frenzy of Don Quixote, in behalf of his wench, Dulcinea del Toboso, is all surpassed."

That fellow had a way with words, didn't he? Not everyone agreed -- especially Butler's cousin Preston who heard of the calumny practiced against his kinsmen and took matters into his own hands. This is from the Official Senate History of the incident:

Representative Preston Brooks was Butler's South Carolina kinsman. If he had believed Sumner to be a gentleman, he might have challenged him to a duel. Instead, he chose a light cane of the type used to discipline unruly dogs. Shortly after the Senate had adjourned for the day, Brooks entered the old chamber, where he found Sumner busily attaching his postal frank to copies of his "Crime Against Kansas" speech.

Moving quickly, Brooks slammed his metal-topped cane onto the unsuspecting Sumner's head. As Brooks struck again and again, Sumner rose and lurched blindly about the chamber, futilely attempting to protect himself. After a very long minute, it ended.

Bleeding profusely, Sumner was carried away. Brooks walked calmly out of the chamber without being detained by the stunned onlookers. Overnight, both men became heroes in their respective regions.

For months afterward, Brooks received ceremonial canes from admirers across the South, several engraved with the epithet "Hit him again." Summner, for his part, spent years in physical therapy and returned to the Senate in time to lead the Bitter End Republicans both during the Civil War and Reconstruction.
What did the American people think of displays like this? Most probably, they were hugely entertained. In a time before radio, TV, the internet, and Bill Maher, politicians were celebrities. And  a politician who could deliver a stemwinder of a speech was a superstar. Can you imagine a knock down, drag out fight between say Bono and Kid Rock? The syndication rights alone would be worth millions.

On the other hand, few would pay to see our current lawmakers go at it on the floor of their respective chambers. Somehow, I can't see Harry Reid gettin' it on with Mitch McConnell, although Mitch has a few inches and probably 50 lbs on the Nevadan. Then again, Harry looks like one of those sneaky strong, wiry types with arms like banded steel. And don't let that mild mannered professor look fool you either. As a kid, he would accompany his father, Harry Reid Sr., for long days deep underground in the mines. His father was a hardrock miner -- not a job for the faint of heart or someone averse to hard work.

But despite seeing Congressmen and Senators as well known personages, the American people back then saw Congress as a whole pretty much the way we see it today; a healthy republican skepticism for their motives and a tendency to view the entire crew as a pretty worthless bunch. They may have liked and admired their own Member of Congress and Senators. But taken together, the Congress was seen as a bunch of greedy charlatans who were out to enrich themselves and their cronies.

If that description strikes you as apropos of today's gaggle of congress critters, you wouldn't be alone. A recent Rasmussen poll is great news for our elected officials. An overwhelming majority of Americans actually agree on something for once. Amidst war, a faltering economy, gas prices that are so high parents are auctioning off their children just to fill the tank, and the prospect of al-Qaeda paying a visit to your neighborhood soon, Americans have come to a consensus on one major issue.

They believe that Congress pretty much sucks; Rasmussen reports  in its latest survey that just 9% of the public gives Congress good or excellent ratings. I said this was great news for our lawmakers because it would be hard to imagine these numbers going any lower. They have hit absolute, undeniable, rock bottom. Just 2% of the public believes that Congress is doing an "excellent" job. Only 7% believe them to be doing a "good" job. Meanwhile, 88% think that Congress is doing a "fair" or "poor" job with 52% believing that 535 marmosets might do a better job than the sorry bunch currently calling themselves our Congress.

The big reason for these historically wretched numbers is the fact that the Congress has done precious little to address the major concerns of the American people. And their number one concern at the moment is the extortionate price for a gallon of gas. Energy costs for the average family have doubled this year and all the voter is seeing from our "Great Men" is handwringing and blame making. Unlike our lawmakers, the American citizen is quite the sensible person and figures that the Congress isn't going to get anything done by being beastly to each other. They want action and they want it yesterday.

But that just isn't in the cards with this assemblage up of pirates and grifters. As long as they're bringing home the pork to their own districts, while making solicitous noises about knowing how tough it is for the average family in this crisis, the average voter will chalk up the problem to "all those other Congressman" and return their Member for another two years so that he/she can rob the treasury some more.

It's depressing but true that this cycle of stupidity will be repeated once again this year. Historically, incumbent Congressmen are returned at a rate of 98% and though a few Republicans will probably fall in November, it won't affect that percentage very much. Most Democratic gains will come in the 32 open seats vacated by retiring (or indicted) members. Being an incumbent these days is like getting dealt a straight flush every hand. The only way to lose is if you go to jail or die before scooping up the pot.

Some of my conservative friends point to these embarrassing numbers and take me to task for not believing in a GOP sweep in the fall. The Democrats, after all, are in control of this flea circus and if the Republicans could get swept away in 2006, punished for mismanaging Congress then surely the Democrats should suffer a similar fate, yes?

In a perfect world, such would be the case. CBut we don't live in a perfect world or even a halfway tolerable one. The aftertaste of 12 years of Republican rule is still being spit out by the voter which is why in the generic vote for Congress, Democrats still lead by a comfortable 47-34 margin. People may be going broke filling their tanks with gas but they aren't yet ready to blame the party that promises them a bountiful and clean energy future but in the meantime they should sit down, shut up, and suffer in silence.

It shouldn't be a winning strategy but it will be. And its because people don't expect anything from Congress anyway that allows this kind of cynicism to win through to victory.

A helluva way to run a country

Rick Moran is associate editor of American Thinker and proprietor of the website Rightwing Nuthouse.