Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Congressional Job Approval, 1990-2007

(Click once or twice on the graphic for a full resolution view. It is big.)

The Democratic congress was swept into office due in part to the low approval of the old Republican congress. Initially approval of Congress improved but is now beginning to slide down a bit. With a confrontation on Iraq war funding looming, it is time to take a look at congressional approval.

As of polling completed 3/28/07, approval of Congress' handling of its job is at 30.8%, compared to 33.3% for President Bush. But Americans love to hate Congress even as we usually love our district's member of Congress. So how does the current 30.8% approval compare with the past?

Over the long haul, from 1990, current approval is rather low, though not at rock bottom. Congressional approval bottomed out in 1992 during the House banking scandal in which members were allowed to maintain negative balances in their accounts. While trivial in comparison to national policy issues, this scandal was a potent symbol of congressional privilege and members who had bounced checks were seriously affected in the 1992 elections. Of the 47 members who bounced over 100 checks, 55% (26) were gone from the 103rd Congress in 1993. Even among those with less than 100 bounces the turnover rate was 43% higher than among those with no check problems. (Data from Jacobson and Dimock, American Journal of Political Science, August 1994, pp 601-624.)

At the low point, my estimate of congressional approval fell to an almost unbelievable 17.5% on June 7, 1992.

Approval improved in 1993 and the first half of 1994, but stayed mostly in the 20s, breaking 30% briefly in early 1994. But this small improvement was followed by another substantial collapse during the fall campaign, to 23.8% by election day. By comparison, in 2006 congressional job approval was at 27.5% on election day.

Following the 1994 Republican revolution, approval improved significantly for the first half of 1995, topping 35% for the first time since early 1990. However, this improvement reached its limit as the Republican Congress confronted a Democratic president over budget decisions. With the confrontation and the eventual shutdown of the federal government, congressional job approval turned down to the high 20s again, bottoming out as the budget crisis was eventually resolved.

Congress then enjoyed two and a half years of improving public approval. Interestingly, this occurred despite a Democratic president whose popularity was also increasing during this time. Approval reached 50% in early 1998, and remained there until after the 1998 elections.

But impeachment was a mistake, at least from the perspective of approval of Congress, with approval dropping sharply by some 7 points during and immediately after the impeachment proceedings. Congress remained below 45% until once more improving to 50% approval during the 2000 election contest.

As with presidential approval, 9/11 produced a significant upturn in congressional approval, though this fell back to around 47% by the 2002 elections.

The start of the Iraq war saw a substantial increase in approval of President Bush, but there is no evidence of a similar rally for Congress in early 2003. From 2003 through the 2004 elections, approval slowly declined to about 40% before turning up slightly at the end of 2004.

That was the last good news for congressional approval under Republican control. The spring of 2005 saw a very sharp drop in approval, from 41% to 33% in the first half of the year, followed by a slower but steady decline until mid-2006. Approval finally bottomed out around April 2006, and held relatively steady through the election, ending at 27.5% on election day.

With the start of the 110th Congress in January, the Democrats enjoyed a modest, but nonetheless significant upturn in approval, to 32.6%.

Since then, the trend has been slowly but steadily downward, reaching the current 30.8% approval as of March 28th.

Compared to 1994, the Democratic gain has been modest. Following the 1994 election, the new Republican Congress enjoyed an immediate upturn of over 7 points. The improvement peaked at 35.9% approval on March 30, 1995. The current Democratic gain was limited to 5.1%, and has since declined rather than continued to improve, as in early 1995.

And so we come to the first major confrontation of a president at 33.3% approval and a Congress at 30.8%. Given the results from 1995, a Congress should worry about confronting even an unpopular president. On the other hand, the budget battles of 1995 were quite different from the Iraq policy battles of 2007. President Bush seems to be betting that a cut off of funds, or even a temporary lapse of funding, will redound to his benefit. But recent polls have also found that more of the public support a withdrawal deadline than take the President's position. How this issue is shaped (starting a withdrawal versus cutting off the troops in the field) will have a significant effect on the outcome of the public debate. But it is a debate in which neither of the primary actors have a substantial advantage in public approval.

(I should note that ratings of "Democrats" or "Democratic leaders" in Congress are a bit above those of Congress as a whole, the variable of interest here. In the few polls that have asked about Democrats or Democratic leaders since the new Congress started, the approval ratings have mostly been in the low 40s, with one poll above 50. This is relevant to the debate over Iraq, and I will turn to this element of evaluation in a subsequent post.)