Congressional unpopularity is nothing new in American politics – rarely does even half of the American public approve of the job Congress is doing.
So who should care that according to recent polls Congress has hit an 11-year low in the public's favor? According to both past trends and recent research, the Republican majority should care, if they know what's good for them.
Recent events in Congress have not sat well with the American public. Republican leaders' intervention in the Terry Schiavo case, ethical questions about the House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, and recent wrangling in the Senate over judicial and executive nominations have taken their toll.
The most recent CBS News/New York Times Poll finds that only 33 percent of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing, and a CBS News Poll found that only 29 percent did so in May. These current sentiments rank among the lowest ratings given to Congress over the past decade in this poll.
For many years the general consensus was that ratings of Congress didn't mean much because "all politics is local."
An individual senator or House member could return home from Washington, perhaps even join with her constituents in bashing the rest of Congress, and be safely returned to office in the next election.
After all, the public generally gives their member of Congress high job marks, even while ranking Congress' performance as a whole negatively. As a result, members of Congress have not typically been concerned with the institution's public image as their own image was thought to inoculate them from it.
But our research shows that this conventional wisdom is not entirely correct, and members who believe it do so at their own electoral peril. The public's view of Congress as an institution does have an impact on individual members' chances for re-election in that voters hold members responsible for the sins of Congress on Election Day. The public does not hold all members equally responsible, however, which is why Republicans have particular cause for worry.
American voters vent their frustration with Congress primarily on congressional candidates from the majority party. This means that Republicans are the ones who will likely suffer in 2006 if Congress' image doesn't improve.
For example, in elections to the House over the past quarter century each 1.6 percentage point drop in public approval of Congress has resulted in one additional seat lost by the majority party.
In addition, our research shows that the majority party members who suffer the most are those seen as the most closely tied to the congressional leadership.
For senators like Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, a member of the Republican Senate leadership who is facing a tough re-election fight in a state that voted for the Democratic presidential candidate in the last four elections, this could spell big trouble.
In other words, members who can be closely tied to the performance of the institution are less likely to be inoculated against public opinion of that institution.
Conversely, those members of the majority party who are typically viewed as "mavericks" – occasionally defying their party's leadership in actions or votes – are the most insulated from public disapproval of their institution.
For example, GOP Sen. Lincoln Chaffee of Rhode Island, one of 14 senators who forged the recent judicial filibuster compromise, is expected to have no trouble holding on to his seat in a staunchly Democratic state.
In terms of the 2006 election, public disapproval of congressional performance is already translating into potential electoral trouble for Republicans.
A recent NBC News poll reports that the American public would actually prefer a Congress controlled by Democrats – 47 percent say they would rather see Democratic control, versus 40 percent who prefer Republican control.
It's no coincidence that one of the last times the public disapproved of Congress at least this much was immediately preceding the election of 1994, when Republicans gained control of both chambers for the first time in 40 years.
Democrats – who had been in control of the unpopular institution – lost 52 seats in the House and eight seats in the Senate. Perversely perhaps, the Republican Senate class that is coming up for re-election in 2006 under such negative circumstances is the same one swept into office in 1994 thanks in part to public disapproval of Congress. In a democracy, one must never forget that what the public gives, it can also take away.
Monika L. McDermott is assistant professor of political science at the University of Connecticut, where she teaches and conducts research on voting behavior and public opinion. Before joining the University of Connecticut, McDermott worked in election polling for CBS News and the Los Angeles Times. She holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of California, Los Angeles.
David R. Jones is associate professor of political science at Baruch College, City University of New York. He the author of a book and several scholarly articles on American politics and voting behavior. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles.