New York Times
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Mar 2, 2013
WASHINGTON » On Friday, $85 billion in spending cuts intended to be so painful and stupid that they would never come into effect started to come into effect.
There is plenty of blame to go around, but the so-called sequestration looks set to only add to the unpopularity of what has become one of America's most-loathed political institutions: Congress.
In a recent /CBS News poll, Americans gave the House and Senate just a 12 percent approval rating, up barely a smidgen from its all-time low. Dozens of other polls conducted in the past year or two have shown Congress to be deeply despised. But even Congress has its supporters, and not just paid staff members or blood relatives, as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., likes to joke. After all, 1 in 8 Americans still gives the institution a thumbs-up.
In follow-up interviews, those respondents to the Times poll gave a complicated and contradictory set of reasons for looking at Congress through rose-colored glasses. Several backtracked or qualified their support when asked to describe what they found so appealing about the institution. The words "idiots" and "ninnies" came up. One respondent described his positive response as accidental. Another mentioned she had been recovering from a recent surgery.
But the small group of people who really did approve of Congress generally seemed to fall into two broad camps, which might be termed the "natural optimists" and the "Obama haters."
Take the second group first. Several respondents said they believed that Congress — which is divided between a Republican-controlled House and a Senate where Democrats are in the majority but generally unable to pass legislation because they lack 60 votes to overcome an almost automatic filibuster by the minority party — was trying its hardest in difficult circumstances, but was repeatedly frustrated by a hubristic White House with a my-way-or-the-highway attitude.
That was the opinion of Bruce Hamer, a self-described Reagan Republican and Southern California engineer. He applauded Congress for coming together to work on immigration and at least trying to tackle the country's finances. He mostly blamed President Barack Obama for undermining the institution.
"As dysfunctional as it might seem, I see Congress as trying to grapple with the diversity of this country, and a president who's trying to demonize people," Hamer said. "There's tremendous polarization, and I don't understand where the spirit of conceding and cooperating is. A leader that's negative is not going to be successful in a government that's got to win consensus."
Another fiscal conservative from the other side of the country, Joseph Menzel, a retired research and development laboratory technician who lives in central New York state, had much the same opinion. "They're blocked at every turn," he said of lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
Menzel said he thought that the House was doing a better job than the Senate, and that Republicans were performing better than Democrats in general. But for real change to come to Washington, he said — turning Obama's original campaign slogan on its head — the White House needs to get out of the way. "Even my cat dislikes Obama when we watch him on television," Menzel said, a glimmer of sarcasm in his voice. "The cat doesn't like to be lied to either."
The other camp of respondents just tended to be looking on the brighter side of things: focusing on the future, crediting Congress with trying and offering some qualified thanks for the effort.
Take Helen Larsen, a wife and mother who lives in coal country in Utah. "If I had to explain it, I'd say that they're putting money where it needs to go," she said of Congress, mulling over her thoughts on Thursday morning. "They're putting it towards our future and our children's future, and maybe a little bit more into helping Social Security and Medicaid and Medicare."
A loosely affiliated Democrat who comes from a family of coal miners, Larsen said that she focused most of her attention on local issues: whether gambling institutions might help revive Utah's economy, when and how the local shops and restaurants could serve liquor, safety in the coal mines.
Of her local representatives, she had a more mixed opinion. "It's like: Let's make some money for Utah!" she said, urging them to bring home more of it despite the nation's fiscal woes. She mentioned that she thought Obama was out of touch with real people and was wasting his time trying to persuade Congress to pass gun legislation.
"I'd love to bring him to Utah and bring him through a couple of coal mines for a day, walking through waist-deep water, instead of sitting in a suit behind a desk in an office," Larsen said.
Brenda Carroll, a schoolteacher and political independent who lives near Seattle, also said she approved of Congress, though she had some reservations. She described it this way: "Sit and think about your family. When you're born, you can't choose who's in your family. So you better, A, learn how to get along, and B, learn to avoid certain topics. That's how I see it."
She recalled that at one point politicians had wanted to make George Washington something like a king, and argued that, when it comes to political incompetence, other countries have it far worse than the United States.
Other answers were simpler. Clyda Mellett of Tennessee, who described Medicare as her top political interest, offered an unqualified thumbs-up. "I think they're doing great," she said.
Such sentiments, of course, remain a distinct minority.
Some analysts, however, see a silver lining in Congress' generally bleak approval ratings. Take this January analysis from Frank Newport of Gallup: "In the broadest sense, one bit of good news for the new Congress is that its current job approval ratings are so low that they have practically nowhere to go but up."