No one polled the citizens of the 1850s to ask what they thought of Congress, but they couldn’t have scored their compromisers on Capitol Hill much lower than we rate the Senate and House of Representatives today. I say that because in February 2012 only one person in ten approved of Congress. In fact, our compromised Capitol probably hasn’t reached the high level marks of incompetence and corruption set by the worst of their predecessors. But they will, if previous cycles are anything to go by. Capitol Hill may keep us astounded and on the edge of our seats with a spectacular record of failure, each peak of unpopularity exceeding the last for a good part of the next 20 years
Gallup, in their February 2012 report of Congressional Approval Ratings, found that an impressive 86 percent of the American public disapprove of how Congress is doing its job. Only 10 percent gave them a passing grade, the lowest polled score in Gallup history. Before that, the lowest approval rating was 11 percent in December 2011. Spurred on by that previous low, some interesting comparisons were made in an article by Scott Neuman titled Congress Really Is As Bad As You Think, Scholars Say, which was published by NPR on December 27th, 2011.
In this article, Thomas Mann, senior fellow of governance studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, acknowledged that in the past, “There were a few really bruising periods in American Congressional history, not only the run-up to the Civil War, but also around the War of 1812.”
The article further noted:
“I think you’d have to go back to the 1850s to find a period of congressional dysfunction like the one we’re in today,” says Daniel Feller, a professor of U.S. history at the University of Tennessee.
Feller, who specializes in the Jacksonian, Antebellum and Civil War periods, points specifically to 1849-1860 when Congress sometimes struggled for months to even elect a speaker of the House.
Other periods of governmental deadlock include Andrew Johnson’s Reconstruction presidency, Woodrow Wilson’s conflict with Congress over the League of Nations and the fights between President Truman and the “do-nothing” 80th Congress in 1947-48.
“None of those involved the level of conflict within Congress itself that we see today,” Feller says.
In the pantheon of also-rans for least effective Congresses, Mann would add a contentious period circa 1910 when long-serving Republican House Speaker Joseph Cannon was ousted from his post mostly by renegades in his own party. There were also bruising fights over the Depression-era New Deal…
The pattern in these comparisons caught my attention. I made a chart which included the historians’ data, the 2011 low and also the two times the approval rating dropped below 20, which can be seen in 1979 and 1992 in this Gallup Chart:
I should note that the Aug 2007 low matched the 18 percent low in March of 1992, and there were lows of 14 percent in July 2008 and 13 percent in December 2010, a descent that since then has been interrupted only by a temporary election year spike of approval fueled largely by Democrats (and some Independents). I have included the newest Gallup chart so you can see how impressive the recent lows are:
What follows is a very rough chart which could use a further refinement of dating. For the Revolutionary, Civil War and WWII eras, I roughed out the dates mentioned by the scholars. Keep in mind these are not lows for which we have measured statistics. Gallup Congressional Approval polls only began in 1974. These are simply the Congresses that came to mind for one or both of these historians when the new congressional low note was mentioned, what they thought of when you asked them about ineffective congresses. If you asked other historians you would probably wind up with quite a varied list. For the current era, I included the two prior Gallup lows in 1979 and 1992 and also the 2011 data, when Congress for the first time fell to 11 percent in the approval ratings. I included the 2011 data as a point of comparison since that was what elicited the responses from the historians. Here is the chart I put together:
The 1979 low during the Carter energy crisis coincides with the low that Congress hit during the 1812 war, if you’re using the cycle of the planet Uranus as your yardstick.
In 1909, when the Speaker of the House was ousted by his own party, Uranus was conjunct its position in the 1992 low brought on by the House Banking scandal (Newt deliberately brought the ‘check kiting’ situation to public attention, even though he himself had overdrawn on 22 checks including a $9,463 check to the IRS).
In 2001-2002 there was no real world correlation to the Wilson-Congress League of Nations struggle around 1919. In fact, the opposite situation was in evidence: the 2001-2002 spike into the stratospheric 80s came on top of gains congress had made since the 1992 low. They were already at one of their higher points of approval when the 9/11 attacks occurred. Neptune was opposite the point where it was found in 1919, however. In this case the 2001-2002 approval spike happened when Neptune was in Aquarius, opposite its position in Leo during the League of Nations squabbles of 1919.
I left 2011 uncolored because we haven’t reached the point in the cycle that will correspond to the 1849 and 1934 data. In other words all those points that correlate to the run-up and aftermath of the Civil and Second World Wars still lay in the future. Uranus has already entered Aries and it will reach 18 degrees of Aries in 2015 and 2016 so you have to wonder how low congress is going to go before they start listening to their constituents. How low can they go? The only thing that limits their continued success at being a failure is the fact that it’s impossible for them to score less than zero. Surely Congress will score higher sometimes in the next 20 years, but if the cycles are any indication they will continue to test the lows. Too bad no one thought to ask the people of 1860 what they thought of their congress. Their disapproval rating must have hit the *stratosphere*.
Congress Really Is As Bad As You Think, Scholars Say, Scott Neuman, NPR, 2/27/2011
Congress’ Job Approval Rating Worst in Gallup History, Gallup, 12/15/2010
Congress’ Job Approval at New Low of 10%, Gallup, 2/8/2012
Worst. Congress. Ever? Steve Benen, Political Animal, Washington Monthly, 1/1/2012