Revulsion towards Congress reaches historic levels

There’s quite a bit to chew on in the newly-released New York Times/CBS News poll, which shows a public burdened with “a deep sense of economic anxiety and doubt about the future.” As a result, the concerns raised by the Occupy Wall Street movement are resonating with much of the country.

But the number that stood out for me was Congress’ approval rating.

A remarkable sense of pessimism and skepticism was apparent in question after question in the survey, which found that Congressional approval has reached a new low at 9 percent. The disapproval toward Congress has risen 22 percentage points since the beginning of the year when Republicans took control of the House.

When was the last time Congress, as an institution, saw its approval rating drop to single digits? Never. The institution has never been popular, but since the dawn of modern polling, we’ve never seen the legislative branch of government that repulses Americans as much as this one.

Congratulations, Republicans. Less than a year after riding your big midterm wave, you’ve generated buyers’ remorse on a historic level.

Also note, President Obama’s approval rating, at least in this poll, is holding steady at 46%. That means, of course, that for all of the president’s political difficulties, Obama enjoys more than five times as much support as Congress.

Now, there’s ample reason to believe congressional Republicans just don’t care. Sure, Americans are disgusted with developments on Capitol Hill, but if voters are inclined to take out their frustrations on the president, even if they agree with him, GOP leaders have an incentive to continue with their scorched-earth strategy. If they keep this up, as they fully intend to do, perhaps the American mainstream will further give up on their public institutions, advancing the Republican Party’s larger goals anyway.

That said, with the institution’s approval rating dropping to an astounding 9%, even Republicans have to appreciate the electoral volatility that comes with these attitudes — a combustible climate that could, for example, sweep the GOP out of the House majority.

I suspect some on the right might suggest Congress is widely hated, but there’s no reason to necessarily assume that’s a reflection on Republicans or their agenda. At first blush, this might seem fair. Democrats are ostensibly in control of the Senate, after all.

But the same NYT/CBS poll shows Americans under the impression that Republicans only care about catering to the rich, and don’t have a jobs plan at all. There’s also a strong public demand for addressing economic inequalities — a desire GOP officials consider offensive at a fundamental level.

With this in mind, if congressional Republicans, perhaps motivated by self-interest, wanted to boost the institution’s approval rating, they could do so rather easily — they could work with Democrats on a jobs bill, among other things. The poll found that 80% of Americans believe it’s a good idea to create jobs by investing in infrastructure, for example.

If Republicans would approve an ambitious infrastructure bill, they’d likely see Congress’ approval rating get back into double digits.