Congressional Dissonance

The most recent public opinion poll has the U.S. Congress’s approval rating at 7 percent.

A separate poll, taken last week amidst the government shutdown, found 60 percent of respondents affirming that every last member of Congress should be fired, including their own.

Beating up on the ineffectiveness of America’s national legislature is such a cliché—along with the painfully unfunny series of jokes about “things that are more popular than Congress”—that I hesitate to bring it up in any context whatever.

Nonetheless, there is one angle from which the problem of the House and Senate’s perennial unpopularity needs to be considered and understood, and it comes in the form of yet another statistic:  90 percent.

That is the proportion of sitting members of the House who were re-elected in 2012.  The number was 85 percent in 2010 and 94 percent in 2008.  In point of fact, the last time the incumbency rate dropped below 80 percent was 1948.

In 2014, will a sizeable chunk of the Congress’s residing class be thrown out on their unholy patoots?

Don’t.  Make.  Me.  Laugh.

If there is any cliché even more putrid than the notion that Congress is rotten to the core, it is the practice by John Q. Public to ensure that as many members as possible are safely returned to their seats every two years.

The alchemy that allows this to happen is probably too complex to tackle all at once, although a great deal of blame has lately been placed on the phenomenon known as the “gerrymander.”  That’s the practice of carving the boundaries of congressional districts so they are disproportionately Democratic or Republican, thereby guaranteeing that the district’s sitting representative will be re-elected for the rest of his or her natural life.

This explanation is valid as far as it goes, but is somehow not quite good enough.

If we are to understand the dramatic disconnect between our contempt for Congress and our penchant for re-electing it, we must plunge deeper than mere political shenaniganery.

Politics is personal.  We elect the people we elect because, in one way or another, we like them.  Whether it’s because we agree with their philosophies about healthcare or immigration, or simply because they seem like folks with whom we could do shots during happy hour, we apply a test of basic decency and identification to everyone to whom we give our vote.

Expressing disapproval and even hatred for the entire U.S. Congress is easy, because it comes across as one giant blob of uselessness—a conglomerate of mostly anonymous individuals whom, with one exception, you played no role in selecting.  Who do these goobers think they are, and why are they spending my hard-earned money on things I don’t care about?

But when your own congressperson returns home with a suitcase full of cash for that shiny new bridge you’ve been asking for?  Now we’re talking.

Even apart from the pork, we picture our hometown representatives as human beings in a manner that is simply not feasible when applied to the House as a whole.  Try as you might, you cannot empathize with 435 lawmakers as you can with one.

There is a reason so many public officials still go out in the streets to shake hands and talk one-on-one with their constituents:  For all that the Internet has done to streamline the act of communicating, there is still nothing that quite equals the personal connection of good old-fashioned eye contact.

To wit:  Thomas Menino, the outgoing mayor of Boston, has enjoyed stratospheric approval ratings for much of his tenure—at last count, it was at 82 percent.  In a 2009 Boston Globe survey, 57 percent of Bostonians said they had met Menino personally.  Do you suppose these two facts are related?

It is my suspicion—long story short—that eliminating gerrymandering will not eliminate the problem of retaining people the public presumes to detest, because even if overt partisanship were brought into proper proportion, the fact of wanting to take care of your own would remain.

Historically, people tend to vote for their congresspersons based on local concerns, saving their national gripes for senators and presidents.  That, in part, is the point of having a bicameral legislature, with one house more vulgar than the other.

There is an inherent tension here, and it will probably never go away.  We will continue to bitch about the House’s collective intransigence, and we will continue to enable it by sending its members back to Washington.

That is, unless we don’t.

The ball is in our court.  If we don’t follow through, we will have no one to blame but ourselves.

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