Approval ratings fail to change status quo

by Brody Burns

MCT Campus
MCT Campus

It took more than three decades but it has finally plunged into single digits and now sits at 9 percent. No, it’s not the likelihood of Herman Cain reaching another anniversary with his wife or the national unemployment rate (8.6 percent). It’s the Congressional approval rating.

A tragic 9 percent of those polled in late October by CBS News and The New York Times actually approved of the job Congress was doing. This represents a historic low since the publications first started recording Congressional approval ratings in 1977.

In addition to the woeful 9 percent, the polling supplied some more interesting voter perceptions: A lowly 10 percent trust the government’s ability to make the right decisions, members from all three political party classifications strongly disapprove of Congress (Republicans 83 percent, Democrats 83 percent, and Independents 85 percent) and since the start of the 112th Congress on Jan. 3, the approval rating has dropped an amazing 15 percentage points.

Approval rates this dismal means one thing: It’s time to cue the part-time comedians and full time legislators for a response.

Rep. John Larson went with obvious sarcasm for his retort“That high?”Meanwhile, Rep. Trey Gowdy supplied the zinger, “We’re below sharks and contract killers.” Sen. Lindsey Graham jested the following about his occupation: “It’s so bad sometimes I tell people I’m a lawyer … I don’t want to be associated with a body that in the eyes of your fellow citizens seems to be dysfunctional. It matters to me.”

But the top ranked of the comedian caucus is Sen. John McCain who delivered his 25th joke in five years, claiming those approving were “down to paid staffers and blood relatives.” Thanks McCain, really funny. The real joke of the situation is the fact a 9 percent approval rating will likely equate to only 80 percent being reelected. Maybe 85. Wait, no one’s still laughing?

The voter approval rating is one of the often-cited statistics offered to assess the current political climate. One can regularly see it referenced, generally on a monthly basis, as pundits throughout the media will attempt to tap into the minds of the American voter. Real Clear Politics, a website that maintains a staggering database of various polling topics, has results from a plethora of distinct polls regarding the approval of Congress this year alone. Yet the one factor that is blatantly overlooked, which happens to be the most important of all, is the fact that it is all completely useless. Voter approval rates mean nothing.

If congressional approval ratings mattered, they would be reflected in the electoral results. Not even close. Take 2008 for instance, when the congressional approval rating hovered around 14 percent. Reelection in the Senate that year was 83 percent. In the House it was 94 percent. Or in 2006, when approval rating was 16 percent, reelection rates were 79 percent in the Senate and 94 percent in the House. Once a congressman is elected, they actually have to try to lose their seat, as was the case last year when a measly three senators lost their re-election bids. Voter apathy, incumbency advantage and a general acceptance of a corrupt political climate render approval ratings to be meaningless.

The procedures of polling the entire voting-age population do not reflect the views of the minority that does vote. The opinions of those persons who do not vote, yet are capable of doing so, are irrelevant. They will freely exercise their right not to vote, therefore their feelings regarding Congress do not matter if attempting to assess the actual grading of the body.

This would be like asking a 4-year-old how he or she feels about Congress — the child can’t vote, so his or her opinion, while highly valued, has no means to correct the problem. Thus, apathy wins. Next, the incredible incumbency advantage creates a system in which nearly everyone who tries, is reelected. If the advantage is so high, then gauging the political gradient is a waste of time. If in 2006, 75 percent disapproved of Congress, then how did nearly everyone get reelected? In the end no one cares; not enough to find another candidate, not enough to actually vote and certainly not enough to create change.

The other glaring problem with assessing the approval rating of the entire body of Congress is the fact that it paints our legislative body to be faceless. Sure, nearly the entire voting-age population disapproves of Congress as being some wretched body of old windbags, but what about the local congressmen? The ones who bring in millions in earmarks to build bridges to nowhere. Not likely, disapproval seems to be constrained to congressmen in other districts.

An actual system that would work, assuming somehow apathy could be reversed, would be a voter approval for each congressman and congresswoman on a continual basis. It would be an ongoing report card from only those within their voting districts. This would immediately supply infinitely more useful knowledge about approval and could potentially influence the actions of those “failing” congressmen to do more than offer terrible anecdotes about approval ratings.

Mark Twain, the Jon Stewart of the late 1800s, once surmised the following of our legislative body:

“It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.”

In reality, Twain was insulting criminals, because we hold them in a much higher regard than Congress.