By Alexander Bolton - 08/25/11 09:30 AM EDT
House Republican lawmakers worry the sputtering economy will be a problem not only for President Obama but could sweep them out of office next year as well.
Nervous House Republicans have filled their schedules with constituent meetings this month to assuage bubbling frustrations over the economy and gridlock in Washington.
“I’ve never seen people as angry as they are right now. They’re angry at the whole system and evidencing that in their comments to me,” said Rep. Timothy Johnson (R-Ill.), who has crisscrossed his district attending chicken dinners and state fairs.
“Being an incumbent in either chamber in either party is an unpopular brand. I’m trying to show people that I’m different, that I listen and don’t engage in a lot of partisanship,” said Johnson, who plans to redouble his efforts as a member of the Congressional Center Aisle Caucus to promote bipartisan cooperation in the fall.
On Aug. 16, Gallup announced that Congress had matched its lowest approval rating of all time, falling to the 13 percent mark reached in December, shortly after Republicans captured the House.
A few days earlier, Gallup released its first measure of the 2012 congressional elections, showing Democrats ahead of Republicans by seven points on the generic ballot.
“Given the approval rating of Congress, everyone has to be on their toes, in either party,” said Glen Bolger, a leading GOP pollster and founder of Public Opinion Strategies.
House Republicans have some explaining to do after last month’s standoff over raising the debt limit.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) declared, “I got 98 percent of what I wanted” in the debt-limit deal.
“I’m pretty happy,” he said.
But much of the country has not been pleased with the aftermath.
Standard & Poor’s concluded the debate raised serious questions about Congress’s ability to address its long-term debt and downgraded the nation’s credit rating, sending markets into a tailspin.
Democrats quickly blamed Republicans for what they called the “Tea-Party downgrade.”
House GOP lawmakers dispute they’re to blame for the downgrade. But GOP freshmen concede they could suffer politically because of widespread sentiment that Washington is not doing enough to fix the economy.
“I think the economy is going to affect everybody in government,” said Rep. Patrick Meehan, a freshman Republican from the outskirts of Philadelphia. “People’s frustrations can be focused at the ballot box. I’ve been spending a lot of time working on issues important to local constituencies.
“You hope you can send a message that you understand their frustration over the big picture, but in the meantime I’m working on things that will directly affect jobs,” he said.
Meehan has spent much of August meeting with employers in his district, such as Siemens, Home Depot and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
His constituents have broad concerns about the economy but also specific worries about federal cuts in research and healthcare spending. Children’s Hospital depends on federal funding for its research on improving automobile child safety, for example.
This month, Meehan is helping to negotiate a potential airport expansion with two local government authorities, which he hopes will create hundreds of new jobs.
The freshman lawmaker says it helps to have a thick skin when confronted by protesters at public events.
“I used to be a professional hockey ref. I’m used to having 15,000 people booing me,” he said.
Rep. Paul Gosar, a freshman Republican from Arizona, has held town-hall meetings and met with local chambers of commerce.
“They’re very angry,” he said of his constituents. “They want to get back to work and they feel government is in the way with rules and regulations.”
Gosar says it’s “always a possibility” that voters upset over the economy will throw him out of office.
He’s making the case that House Republicans have been “talking about jobs from day one," citing efforts to roll back regulations and lower deficits.
Rep. Rick Berg, a freshman Republican running for Senate in North Dakota, is the rare incumbent running in a state with low unemployment numbers.
He said North Dakota lowered its unemployment rate to 3.2 percent by balancing its budget and creating a pro-business environment.
But he said it will be hard to change the regulatory environment in Washington while Democrats control the Senate, where House GOP initiatives, such as the "cut, cap and balance" measure, have died.
“Whenever you have a high unemployment and a struggling economy, it makes elections difficult for any incumbent,” Berg said. “Having said that, I think this next election is a debate on how we get this economy turned around.”
He said the election will come down to two competing views: The Keynesian view, held by many Democrats, that government needs to spend more to increase aggregate demand. And the limited-government philosophy, favored by Republicans, which holds that governments should operate as businesses and family households.
Rep. Lou Barletta, a freshman Republican from Hazelton, Pa., said jobs and the economy are the top priorities at home.
“They want to talk about jobs and how we’re going to get America back to work again. I explained to them as a former entrepreneur that I think America has one of the least friendly business environments in the world,” he said of constituents.
Barletta makes the case to voters that the House has tried to improve the domestic business environment by passing an ambitious budget-cutting plan and advancing a proposal to implement a balanced-budget amendment.
He said only House Republicans have been willing to tackle entitlement programs, which will contribute the most to the debt over the next several decades, and blamed Senate Democrats for refusing to compromise.
“I’m proud to say that in the House we’re willing and have the courage to tackle these problems. If we pass bills in House and they die in the Senate, the public needs to know that,” he said.
Blaming the Senate is a popular argument in House districts around the country.
Rep. Tom Reed, a freshman Republican from upstate New York, has scheduled six town-hall meetings in his district this month. He tells constituents the House has passed legislation to give businesses more certainty, but the Senate has blocked those initiatives.
“They don’t realize we passed all this and the Senate didn’t do anything,” he said. “They leave the meetings saying they’re going to call their senators.”
Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) faced angry protesters at a town-hall meeting in Avondale, Ohio, on Monday. He said Think Progress, the liberal political advocacy group, organized the protest.
Chabot says people are “frustrated that the economy continues to muddle along and employment continues to be high.”
But he says most constituents are upset about federal regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration as well as new rules established by the healthcare reform and Wall Street reform legislation passed in 2010.
Chabot said Obama’s administration has put a drag on the economy. But Chabot also recognizes that he may get blamed as well on Election Day.
“The main problem has been the policies that this administration have pushed and gotten through over the last couple years,” he said.
Even so, Chabot says, “I’m fully aware that when there’s frustration, all incumbents can be held somewhat accountable, whether they were responsible are not.
“People expect results,” he said.