In a summer of discontent, Republicans are buoyed by poll numbers showing that the 110th Congress, under Democratic control, has among the lowest approval ratings ever recorded. The most recent numbers indicate that as few as 18 percent of those polled approve of the job Congress is doing; disapproval is as high as 76 percent. On the one hand, this seems to threaten Democrats' prospects for retaining control next year; on the other, there's a rough consensus that the numbers are so bad not because voters want to reinstall the Republicans, but because Democratic voters themselves are fed up at the failure to end the war in Iraq and force major change in other areas of policy. Indeed, just 28 percent of Democrats in one recent poll expressed approval, compared to 59 percent disapproving.
But maybe that frustration--which I think extends all the way across our politics, and has its origins in the simple truth that everyone wants the atrociously bad Bush presidency just to be over--is misplaced. Congressional scholar Thomas Mann writes today that the 110th Congress, far from the do-nothing persona Republicans constantly allege, has accomplished a lot--particularly in comparison to 12 years ago, when a new Republican majority found itself in power but checked by a Democratic president:
[T]he Democratic Congress’s legislative harvest this year has been bountiful compared with that of its Republican counterpart in 1995. Back then, the Republicans’ Contract With America was stymied by opposition from the Senate and the president. The new Congress has enacted a far-reaching lobbying and ethics reform bill, an increase in the minimum wage, recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, foreign investment rules and a competitiveness package, and has embedded a number of major initiatives and new priorities in continuing and supplemental spending bills. Democrats also made headway on energy, children’s health insurance, college student loans, Head Start, drug safety and a farm bill — though much of this awaits action in the Senate or in conference and faces a possible veto.
During the first seven months of 1995, Congressional oversight of the executive branch increased modestly in the Senate but not at all in the House. But this year Congress, especially the House, has intensified its oversight, following years of inattention and deference by its Republican predecessor.
Mann backs up his case with this chart.
A couple things. First of all, I don't believe that public perception of Congress has more than a very tangential relationship to what, or how many, measures they pass or enact with the president's signature. I hardly remember the energy measure and the action on college student loans, and I don't remember anything on Head Start and drug safety--and I feel pretty confident that I follow this stuff more closely than most of the public. On the other hand, I certainly remember the failures of the immigration bill and the various measures to de-escalate or stop the war, and the Democrats' disgraceful capitulation on wiretapping that essentially invalidated the Fourth Amendment. To be honest, I don't approve of the Congress's performance either.
But the second point is maybe more important: the frustrations shared by Democrats both professional and amateur are part and parcel of the system. It's not supposed to be easy to change policy. You can have a rabidly partisan, arguably sociopathic president, a minority more interested in embarrassing the other side than passing laws, outside pressure groups subtle (the insurance lobby pushing Bush to veto S-CHIP expansion) and gross (millions of enraged talk-radio callers and Lou Dobbs viewers fingering their guns in anticipation of a Mexican invasion). The only time it's ever even sort of easy is when there's a disaster--the Depression, JFK's assassination, 9/11--that either discredits or mutes the opposition.
The Democrats are somewhat in a dilemma here, because they won't get more popular until they win some more political fights, but obviously it will be more difficult to win those fights with 18 percent approval than a clear expression of support from the country. It's now more clear than ever that 2006 was the year of Republican collapse; unless the Dems figure out how to win on a positive agenda, with their own candidates, their ascendency will be short-lived and the history of the 110th Congress will be written by those who overthrew it.