Approval of Congress Hits Near-Record Low as Country Stumbles Toward Shutdown

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Back in 2013, as congressional leaders and President Barack Obama searched for an end to a 16-day government shutdown, a survey by the Pew Research Center found 73% of Americans disapproved of Congress, a record high.

A decade later, Americans are no longer even bothering to wait for the shutdown most of Washington seems to assume is inevitable to register their disgust. Pew's latest polling, released on Tuesday, shows just 26% of Americans holding a favorable view of Congress and 72% with the inverse, within a rounding error of the record from 2013. To get to a similar number today, Congress didn’t have to let the lights go out; Americans sensed this set of lawmakers by and large seemed more interested in self-aggrandizement than governing.

And even as the public holds them in such little regard, it’s like lawmakers are collectively saying hold my beer to the country. Funding is about to dry up come Oct. 1, the 12 must-pass bills are nowhere near finished in a way that can pass both chambers, and a handful of unyielding ideologues stand in the way of anything even approaching civility. Even a stopgap is far from an easy lift, and the usual gimme’ on the defense package keeps getting tripped up.

For the folks who love this type of stunt, such dysfunctionality is evidence of the efficacy of disruption—and that translates to dollars for the next campaign and for allies who will owe them chits. For mainstream D.C. types, it’s a horrifying reminder of just how unprepared this GOP Leadership team in the House was when they came in, why it took 15 ballots to put them in place, and why they surrendered any sustainability just to get the job for a hot minute.

As Congress stumbles into the potential seventh government shutdown since 1990, it’s no wonder Americans have lost faith in the ability of the parties to self-correct, to self-regulate. And that’s as much of a problem for the party on deck as the one in the hot seat.

It’s not just a hunch, either. In new questions to the Pew battery, 97% of Americans say at least some politicians run for office to get famous and 99% say they do so to get rich. Meanwhile, a record share of Americans—22%!—now say they never trust the government to do what’s right. When Pew first asked that question back in October of 1997, only 2% agreed with that sentiment. The current numbers make clear that Americans view Washington as irresponsible, craven, and lacking almost any essence of credibility.

This isn’t an environment for success—for Freedom Caucus members, for Main Street Republicans, for New Deal Democrats, for progressives, or even the socialists. It sure as heck isn’t one for responsibility. No one wins when chaos is the order of the day.

So, getting back to this dismal data: the GOP-led House is enjoying a measly 33% approval rating, with Republicans and those leaning that way eight points more likely than Democrats and Democratic learners to give the House a positive nod; both blocs remain underwater. Democrats’ narrow majority in the Senate hangs with a 32% approval rating, although the partisan difference is more pronounced; 39% of Democrats endorse what they’re seeing in the Senate while 26% of Republicans say the same.

Pew is essentially unmatched in its scope and depth of these surveys. For this batch, more than 8,400 respondents recorded their detailed answers to questions for this, the 130th wave of such questioning put into the field since 2014. Because it has asked the same questions repeatedly of many of the same Americans—of the almost 31,000 people who have participated in these projects, almost 13,000 remained active—the Pew modeling remains a gold standard for tracking Americans’ attitudes toward everything from politics, religion, the culture wars, and individuals. And, in that, there are warning signs aplenty for institutions of American life that seem ever more frail with each data discharge.

So, as The Hold My Beer Congress is on its seemingly inevitable slog toward a shutdown orchestrated by House Republicans’ far-right flank, the rest of Washington is left to watch irrational choices that are bemusing as memes but maddening when billions of dollars lost could be the fallout. (No joke, Standard & Poor’s put the price tag of the 2013 shutdown at $24 billion for 16 days of stunt.) Most of Washington is scowling from the sidelines, but a handful of activist-cable news producers are roaring from the stands. This is good drama, fantastic for fundraising, and toxic for governing. 

It’s why a whole lot of Washington—even those who are at best agnostic—find themselves of late chanting a simplified version of the Christian Serenity Prayer: Jesus, Take The Wheel.

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