Congress’ approval rating is perilously close to the margin of error for none at all, according to a new survey by Indiana University’s Center on Congress.
Among the 1,000 individuals polled nationwide throughout September and October, just 9 percent approved of Congress’ current job performance. The margin of error for the public opinion survey conducted by YouGov/Polimetrix was 3.5 percent. That means Congress’ approval rating could be as high as 12.5 percent or as low as 5.5 percent.
Founded in 1999 and run by former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, D-Ind., the center has for years been sponsoring annual public opinion polls to take the temperature of Americans’ feelings toward their elected officials in Washington, D.C. These are the lowest marks the nonpartisan education institution has ever seen.
“Quite frankly, it’s been a pretty dismal evaluation of Congress ever since we began doing these surveys ... it’s as low as we’ve seen it, although it’s not much lower,” said Edward Carmines, the center’s research director and a professor of political science at Indiana University in Bloomington. “This whole era, Congress has been in very low esteem, but it certainly hasn’t improved and in some ways it’s gotten even more negative in terms of the public’s evaluation of Congress.”
The latest survey, released last week, shows a decline from years past. The November 2011 public opinion survey put Congress’ approval rating at 9.8 percent, while in October 2010 the center’s poll showed that 16.3 percent of respondents approved of legislators’ job performance. In October 2009, the approval rating was 23 percent.
With veteran lawmakers themselves saying that the climate on Capitol Hill has never felt more toxic, the 2012 survey results should be sobering, if not too surprising.
Respondents to the poll overwhelmingly gave failing marks to the 112th Congress on a variety of issues when asked to provide a grade from A to F, including “dealing with key issues facing the country” and “keeping excessive partisanship in check.”
Only 1 percent of respondents gave Congress an “A” for “holding members to high standards of ethical conduct.” Just 1 percent also answered “yes, most of the time” to the question, “Do Members of Congress listen and care about what people like you think?”
Carmines said the cumulative results show that respondents’ greatest concern is the perceived general lack of civility among members of the House and the Senate, and the negative impact that has on policymaking.
Their outlook on this condition changing anytime soon is considerably bleak. Only 2 percent agreed that “the tone of the debate in Congress over the past several years” has in any way improved, and just 14 percent said they expected the current level of civility, or complete lack thereof, to improve at all in the years to come.
“It’s really contributed to the unpopularity of Congress,” Carmines noted.
He added that the survey’s results show that the public doesn’t see itself as responsible for Congress’ state of being.
Respondents disproportionately named party leaders, members of Congress, the media and political campaigns as primarily to blame for Congress’ incivility. Meanwhile, when asked to rate how much the current political climate is attributable to “the increased incivility of society in general,” 33 percent called it a “major factor,” while 53 percent were more lukewarm, saying it was “somewhat of a factor.” 24 percent said the voters who brought lawmakers to Washington were a “major factor” in contributing to the incivility, and 47 percent labeled them “somewhat of a factor.”
“I really think they are taking a too-rosy view of their participation in this process,” Carmines said. “It’s true that some of these factors do exacerbate incivility, but it’s also true there are elements of the public that encourage this and in a way provide a shield for it. I don’t think they adequately recognize that.”