In the mid-1970s, after the Watergate scandal drove public confidence in the federal government down to then-unheard of levels of 43 or 44 percent, members of Congress panicked. They held hearings and established joint commissions, all in an effort to improve the government’s standing with the public.
Well, that was then. On Thursday, the Gallup organization released its annual poll on the confidence Americans feel in major public institutions, revealing that only 7 percent of the population has “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in Congress, the lowest number in the poll’s history. The reaction on Capitol Hill? Crickets.
Don Wolfensberger, resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center and a senior scholar at the Wilson Center, worked on Capitol Hill in the years after the Watergate scandal drove Congress to do some soul-searching. “There was a great deal of alarm in Congress about it then,” he said. “I don’t even see that institutional concern right now.”
Asked just how low the public’s support for its lawmakers could go, congressional scholar Thomas Mann, of the Brookings Institution said, “This is equivalent to the bottom. All that’s left is blood relatives and staffers.”
Mann said the public’s contempt for Congress isn’t surprising, but it is a bit ironic.
“It’s just a reinforcement of the ugly partisan polarization that exists in our Congress and in our country,” he said. However, he added, the members of Congress weren’t elected by accident. “It’s the partisanship of the electorate that’s produced this.”
The Gallup news comes a day after a poll found President Obama’s job approval rating had fallen to 41 percent, with 54 percent of respondents saying they don’t believe Obama can lead the country. This prompted NBC’s Chuck Todd to suggest the public was telling Obama, “Your presidency is over.”
But when it comes to confidence in the presidency as an institution, the office outscores Congress by a factor of four, with 29 percent of people reporting either “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in it.
The 7 percent figure is not just the lowest score Congress has received in the more than 40 years that Gallup has asked the question. It’s the lowest score any of the 16 institutions named in the poll has ever received. In fact, it’s the first time any of them have fallen into single digits.
As has been the case for most of the past 20 years, the military received the highest confidence rating in the poll, at 74 percent. The Police and Small Businesses were the only other categories to top 50 percent. The full results, going back to 1973, can be found here.
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