The broken windows of Congress

Congress is in a bad place these days, and too many in Washington seem to ignore the institution’s image problem, seeing it as transitory or even a “normal” circumstance of our cynical society’s jaundiced view of politics. Congress’s terrible job approval ratings are not “normal,” as we will see. Rather, the current situation is extraordinary and profound when considered in historical context.

One poll taken at a single point in time can be interesting, but it is the repeated “time series” polling that is more often insightful. With a single poll, there is always the one chance in 20 that it’s afflicted by the “wild hair” sampling quirk that statisticians know will allow error that exceeds the usual plus-or-minus range for a given sample size. But with the repeated time series, you can overlook the occasional outlier from the longer trend. For example, looking over the trend in nearly 50 surveys accumulated by since January 2012 on congressional job approval, only four show approval ratings topping (just barely) 20 percent. All the other polls show ratings in the teens. I’d guess the four outliers were sampling quirks, not actual rallies in affection for Congress.

So the current trend is relatively flat, with 4 in 5 Americans unhappy with Congress. This negative inclination appears to have begun in the middle of 2011. Before that, Congress would regularly score above 20 percent job approval, and sometimes even breach the threshold of 30 percent. The numbers throughout 2008 were erratic, often in the teens, as they are now, but were more frequently punctuated by 20-something approval. In 2005-2007, the numbers were consistently higher, sometimes even piercing the 40 percent barrier, with only an occasional backslide.

The point of this review is that the numbers tell us that Congress is doing worse than usual, and for longer than usual — and that it’s not really fair to just shrug it off and say that politicians are never liked by the public. For far too long now, Congress has been below what we know is “normal” when looking at the extended time series. These are peculiarly bad times for the Congress. Admit it. Stop trying to ignore or minimalize the problem. There are consequences for such rationalizations and they aren’t good for the nation.

To be honest, Congress is not getting much done these days, is it? At least, not much is being achieved when it comes to the big-ticket items like the budget and spending challenges. Why? I would argue that, in part, it’s because there is no incentive for Congress to keep up its image by accomplishing something. The institution’s image is so broken that no one feels like working to preserve it. Call it broken windows syndrome — you will remember that urbanists like James Q. Wilson once suggested that when a city allows broken windows and graffiti to linger, a downward spiral ensues because leaders allow these symbols of disorder to signal to all that no one cares anymore. Responsible city leaders insist that windows be fixed and graffiti removed.

But no one in Congress seems to care. Broken windows are everywhere and no one is demanding they be fixed. Congress has become a version of Detroit in the 1980s, where it’s tough to find someone who gives a damn. Congress is evidently so far down in the polls in its own collective mind that no one minds much anymore. Otherwise, we’d see some effort to do more. It’s as if members see the situation as just too bleak to act. Why fix a window when someone will just throw a rock through it tomorrow?

Pride of institution? Ambition for success? Hope for achievement? None of these is happening in Congress. They have all been snuffed by almost two numbing years of abysmal job approval ratings.
Hill is a pollster that has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.