Just 13 percent of Americans, according to a Gallup poll released on Tuesday, pat Congress on the back and say, “Good job!”
It’ll thus be disgruntling for many voters to see most of the 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives celebrate their re-election come November. Indeed, historical House re-election rates hover around 90 percent, not dropping below 85 percent since at least 1964.
How can a body so majorly disdained, at least recently, almost assuredly punch its ticket for another two-year term? The answers, political scientists say, are complex. But if you need a simpler reason now, look locally at voters’ perspectives.
In Maryland’s 8th District, constituent Charles Ray says his representative, Chris Van Hollen, is “among the few, in an institution that seemed to be cowed by a few loud-mouth bullies, who seemed willing to swim against the tide.”
Meanwhile in Illinois’ 5th, Isa-Lee Wolf says of Mike Quigley, her House delegate: “My congressman gets my support because he's swimming upstream in a river with a non-cooperative current.”
There’s something to that swimming metaphor. Voters across the country see their House member as a fish out of water — a heroic figure in a Sisyphean struggle against an evil entity.
It’s almost Greek in its tragedy.
“There is something of a paradox in that Congress, as an institution, is deeply unpopular,” Peter Hanson, a University of Denver political science professor who studies polarization, tells Yahoo News. “But people tend to like and respect their individual member of Congress.”
To wit, from Facebook:
Blame political homogeny in House districts for the latter: Republicans win conservative districts, and Democrats win liberal ones. No duh, right? Well, it wasn’t always that way. In the mid-20th century, both parties included a healthy number of conservatives and liberals. Hanson notes: “Conflicts were not necessarily partisan conflicts. They were ideological. The conflict didn’t spread neatly along party lines.” Today we’re polarized — but not within our districts — so it’s harder for Congress to get business done.
Get nothing done? Get poor marks.
Voters elect congressional members, Hanson says, to do a fantastic job representing their districts, not the country. “The end result of that effort will be gridlock and frustration with Congress on a national level,” he said. More simply: We perceive House politicians as doing their jobs locally but not nationally.
“That’s simply the design of our system,” Hanson says. “It’s the nature of a legislature to contain a variety of different interests that engage in loud, noisy conflict that, from the outside perspective, looks like nothing but bickering and that frustrates voters.”
How frustrated are they? To capture the canyon-like gap between individual and institutional approval, Yahoo News this month invited constituents to contrast their House representative with Congress and look toward November’s midterm elections. Why do they like their officials but not those across district boundaries? Will they vote for their representative on Nov. 4? Here are some lightly edited excerpts we received from readers, with some Facebook responses woven in:
When five-term Sen. Tom Harkin announced he would not seek re-election in 2014, he listed a variety of reasons for his retirement. He said it just wasn't fun anymore. Congressmen used to lunch together and have a great camaraderie. But today, everyone, Harkin feels, is "so consumed with other things." What other things? Harkin told the Washington Post: "We're not there on Monday, and we're not there on Friday. Tuesday we have our party caucuses. That leaves Wednesday and Thursday — and guess what people are doing then? They're out raising money."
In January, a PowerPoint presentation prepared by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for incoming freshmen was leaked. In it, the group recommends that each representative spend four hours a day completing his or her "call time." In a 10-hour workday, that would mean spending 40 percent of one's time in Congress raising money for one's political party.
I never voted for Justin Amash to be my representative in Michigan's 3rd District. I never could. Amash is a Republican, and I think the Democratic and Republican parties act more like criminal cartels. I rarely agree with him. But I'm OK with that. The young representative runs a Facebook page with nearly 79,000 followers. On it, he details every vote that he casts and provides an in-depth description of why he voted the way he did. Anyone that disagrees with his vote is welcome to start a discussion or engage in debate.
You know, something Congress used to do.
— Charles Manley, Grand Rapids, Mich.
The actions and rhetoric of a tiny cabal of tea party zealots during the last nine months of 2013 caused my attitude to plunge to an all-time low.
I still have a lot of admiration of Van Hollen, and I am almost certain to vote for him in 2014. He has been consistent in his support for rational control of firearm ownership in a country that has been plagued with gun violence on a depressingly regular basis, and, unlike many of his colleagues in the House, he has called for an increase in taxes for the wealthiest individuals who control the lion's share of America's money.
There are others in Congress who take their responsibilities seriously. Unfortunately, in a body controlled by malcontents intent upon taking the country back to the bad old days when the rich gave orders and the poor had children, they are few and far between.
— Charles Ray, North Potomac, Md.
Like many Americans, I have a dim view of Congress. However, I like and appreciate my particular representative, John Culberson, a Republican and conservative from Texas’ 7th District. There are various reasons for this dichotomy.
Much of my personal disdain with Congress stems from the fact that it is divided. The House is run by Republicans, my own party affiliation, and the Senate by Democrats. This in turn has caused a pernicious thing called compromise.
Perhaps the best way to fix Congress is to elect more people like Culberson, in both the House and the Senate. I have been pleased to have voted for him for the six elections he has been my congressman, following the advice of the late Clare Boothe Luce that one should look at the candidates, examine the issues, and then vote a straight GOP ticket, which I shall likely do in 2014.
— Mark Whittington, Houston, Texas
My congressman, Rep. Mike Quigley of Illinois' 5th District, is a Democrat in a sea of Republicans who seem to have forgotten the purpose of Congress. He cannot force legislation on those politicians who refuse to legislate.
In case you think it's merely partisan hot air to "blame the Republicans" for the shutdown, check out the list of votes. Every single legislator who refused to fund the government by voting "nay" is a Republican. Not one of them should return to Congress, given the utter disdain for the constitutional process they showed during their attempt to repeal legislation through extra-constitutional means, using our government as a pawn. It's no coincidence that the record approval lows hit after the shutdown. In contrast, Quigley also voted to reopen the government, along with the rest of the Democrats.
— Isa-Lee Wolf, Chicago
Duncan D. Hunter of California’s 50th comes with a perfect political pedigree. He is the son of a career politician who served in Congress from 1981 to 2009. The son should be applauded for his service to the country as a Marine in Iraq and Afghanistan. He continues his service in the Marine Reserve.
To date, Hunter has toed the Republican line. He has voted for the Keep Your Health Plan Act of 2013, Pay Our Guard and Reserve Act and Congressional Pay Freeze and Fiscal Responsibility Act. I am in sync with these.
But I believe the biggest concern for our district and our country in general is the number of terms our politicians are allowed to serve. We hamper their ability to vote with their conscience and not for their voting constituents. As is, our political system is fertile ground for corruption, and re-election is a goal that merits all costs.
I like Hunter, and will vote for him for a third term in November. However, it stops there. If he really wants to improve this country, I would implore him to work for term limits.
— Joe Tuborg, San Diego, Calif.
David Price is one of the few politicians from North Carolina who's not giving my state a bad name.
Unlike pretty much every Republican representative (and many in Price's own Democratic Party), he's a civil servant in the true sense of the term. His website explains how to get coverage on HealthCare.gov and has a lot of helpful resources for his constituents, even if we just want help touring Washington, D.C. He regularly meets with his constituents in North Carolina's 4th District and contacts us through mailings and e-newsletters to draw our attention to those in our state who are going hungry through no fault of their own.
Compare and contrast that with most of the rest of Congress in which, for all of 2013, the big fight was over how much everyone who's not rich ought to be screwed over. This culminated in the Republican-led shutdown, in which they apparently decided they'd rather crash the country into the ground than let one more brown American or unmarried mother have enough to feed their kids. Or survive being unemployed.
So, why aren't there more awesome representatives like mine?
— Taryn Fox, Cary, N.C.