David Harsanyi / December 13, 2013

96% of Americans Are Wrong About Congress

For more than 20 years, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll has been measuring how voters feel about Congress. And “perhaps unsurprisingly,” writes Ezra Klein, “a majority of Americans – a new record – thinks the current Congress is one of the worst ever.” Klein, like many other liberal pundits, has written numerous pieces about how Congress is the worst/laziest/rottenest ever, so this works out well for him. Not getting your way all the time can be frustrating.

For more than 20 years, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll has been measuring how voters feel about Congress. And “perhaps unsurprisingly,” writes Ezra Klein, “a majority of Americans – a new record – thinks the current Congress is one of the worst ever.” Klein, like many other liberal pundits, has written numerous pieces about how Congress is the worst/laziest/rottenest ever, so this works out well for him. Not getting your way all the time can be frustrating.

“96 percent of Americans think this Congress is at or below average. What’s wrong with the other 4 percent?” asked Klein in a tweet.

What’s wrong? Absolutely nothing, that’s what. Though I can’t speak for all 4 percenters, as someone who believes this Congress has been one of the most (inadvertently) effective and underrated in American history, I can offer a number of my own reasons.

Voters tend to believe a lot of myths about American government. We believe gridlock is unhealthy (even though historically, we tend to favor divided government). We believe that the majority should always have its way, that popular ideas automatically deserve up-or-down votes and that Congress is more “productive” when it passes lots of laws.

Klein once argued that the No. 1 reason a GOP Congress was “the worst ever” was that it was “not passing laws,” which is the “simplest measure of congressional productivity.” The simplest and also the most misleading. Admittedly, we tend to measure productivity by goals scored, when often we should be measuring it by goals against average. And John Boehner’s House, often pressured by a minority within the minority, has made saves on all kinds of terrible bills.

Americans reflexively dislike gridlock. I get that. In the real world, we like to get stuff done. So do politicians. But this iteration of the Democratic Party has passed more significant legislation than any other in memory – including a complete overhaul of health care and fiscal policy. It was this Democratic Party that championed legislation mandating the participation of every citizen, without attaining even the minimum standard of consensus or input from the other party.

So today’s intractable GOP Congress – despite its often amateurish politics, overreaches and missteps – is an organic safeguard against that kind of irresponsible centralized democracy. On that merit alone, it should be a lot more popular. And if the ideological gap continues to expand (both sides becoming more purist) and Washington’s big notions keep intruding on the ability of states and individuals to live by their own ideas and ideals, gridlock will be the only remedy. As hapless as the GOP has been, this is how the Founding Fathers planned it.

Then again, I do wonder whether these ham-fisted congressional approval polls tell us as much about our distaste for Congress as pundits think they do.

Despite the widespread belief that gridlock is the primary driver of Congress’ unpopularity, we all have our own bone to pick with politicians. Trust me; not many conservatives walk around lamenting the fact that Congress doesn’t pass more laws. More than likely, many respondents are frustrated by the perception/reality that the GOP isn’t politically effective, that it’s too weak and too accommodating. Check out the anger provoked by the recent budget deal (which is, indeed, awful). If these polls deciphered why respondents are unhappy with Congress, we’d probably end up with something resembling the partisan splits we see in most other polls.

Moreover, disliking Congress is basically akin to disliking lawyers or journalists. Sure, they deserve it, but it’s still often perfunctory. If we truly loathed Congress as much as we maintain, we wouldn’t reliably vote for incumbents. We love our member of Congress. Incumbents, in fact, are safer today than they have been in many decades. I’m going to guess there’s a 96 percent chance that your representative has a better approval rating in his or her district than President Barack Obama does nationally.

So there are probably numerous factors driving Congress’ unpopularity. It’s doubtless that some of those factors conflict with one another. So hate Congress if you must. But if, as liberal pundits argue, an overwhelming majority of Americans are dissatisfied with the House because it’s not passing enough laws to hit some arbitrary quota, then the large majority of Americans have absolutely no clue what healthy republican government is supposed to look like.

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