Why Congressional Approval Ratings Are Meaningless

A slew of articles are telling Americans that approval ratings for the US Congress are horribly low, in the single digits. The accompanying polls inform us that Congress has lower approval ratings than pornography, Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and herpes, among other entities designed to make us cringe. Congress's approval ratings are supposed to shock us. But they shouldn't. In fact, these numbers are an extremely poor indicator of anything. Why? 

First, the real reason Congress's approval ratings are so low is because America is deeply divided about our future direction. This reality is reflected in the continuing inability of Congress to do anything about anything. Behind this reality is a fact. Most voters like and are willing to re-elect their own member of Congress. It is the other guy's member of Congress they despise. Conservative Republicans like me are perfectly happy to re-elect our own MC, while at the same time wanting to throw out Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. Those who support the latter want to get rid of Eric Cantor and Mitch McConnell. And so it goes. Those on the other side become proxies for Congress as a whole.

Accordingly, the real number pollsters should be looking at is the willingness of voters to re-elect their own senator or congressman, not what they think of Congress as a whole. What do the numbers tell us? So far, Americans are very happy with their own and are willing to re-elect them with ease. According to OpenSecrets.org, for the last three elections cycles (2006, 08 and 10) the re-election rates for the US Senate are 79%, 83% and 84% (2010). For the House of Representatives, re-election numbers are 94%, 94% and 85% (2010). The bottom line is that voters overwhelming like their own senator or congressman but despise the other guy and Congress as a whole. But it is only their own they can vote for. Approval numbers for Congress as a whole are nothing anyone can act on, unlike approval numbers for President of the United States. Therefore they mean almost nothing.

One election cycle in the last fifty years argues against this re-election trend, but only in US Senate races. In the election of 1980, only 55% of senators running were re-elected. But don't get too excited. In the same year, 91% of House races went to the incumbent. If you really want congressional disapproval, hope for 1980 numbers to reappear in 2012.

Here is the bottom line. If Americans really plan on doing anything about Congress, two things will eventually happen. First, voters will demand that the whole idea of "safe districts" be dismantled by an independent commission, turning Congressional races more competitive and therefore more susceptible to turnover. Secondly, regardless of redistricting, voters will be more willing to vote their own congressman out of office.

Until then, Congressional approval ratings can go to zero and they will mean what they do today. Essentially nothing.

Jay Haug is a free-lance writer living in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. You may email him at cjcwguy@gmail.com

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