WASHINGTON » One of the immutable laws of American politics has been that while voters typically loathe Congress, they tend to tolerate their own lawmaker. Now, with ratings for the institution in the root cellar and approval of individual lawmakers heading there, members of Congress and analysts are beginning to wonder if that law could be repealed next year.
According to a September New York Times/CBS News poll, only 33 percent of registered voters believe their own member deserved to be re-elected, and a mere 6 percent said the same about most members of Congress, both the lowest figures since The Times started asking this question in the early 1990s.
Along with the dismal poll ratings, two special elections in New York this year have vividly illustrated what an angry electorate is capable of. In one, a Democrat won a Republican stronghold, while a Tea Party-leaning Republican was victorious in a traditionally Democratic district.
As those results suggest, most operatives and analysts do not expect the 2012 election to be the kind of mainly partisan wave that flipped control of the House in 2006 and again last year. Instead, they believe that Republicans are more likely than not to hold their majority in the House and mount a strong challenge for control of the Senate, where Democrats now hold a narrow majority. Along the way, many incumbents — from both parties — could face difficult campaigns.
Even newcomers swept into office in 2010 on an anti-government tide worry that they could be just as easily swept out after only a two-year stay since they have become part of the government that much of the public seems to abhor. "If you’re here, you’re going be a target," said Rep. Renee Ellmers of North Carolina, a Republican freshman. "I think you’re going to see a lot of challenges within our own party. I am assuming I will."
Members of both parties also worry because voter rage for the last few years has been directed more at institutions and power structures than parties. Two grass-roots political movements, the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, are ostensibly right and left leaning respectively, but express ire with both parties.
Voters "are painting with a pretty broad brush," said Rep. John Carney of Delaware, a freshman Democrat. "I think it cuts both ways, and that’s why I argue with my members that we have to find a way to work together."
Republicans, while hopeful that most of the bad outcome will affect President Barack Obama, largely concur. "I think that there is a palpable dissatisfaction and frustration with all of us," said veteran Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.
The poll numbers for Republicans lag far behind those of Obama, who was at 46 percent approval in the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll, in October, while only 9 percent of respondents approved of the way Congress was doing its job. Yet there is a big difference between Obama’s ratings and those of Congress: The president, not Congress, tends to dominate the political debate and the party in charge tends to take the heat.
This is something many House Republicans are clinging to. "People are really frustrated by the lack of any optimism," said Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the majority leader. But he blames Obama. "That’s why people’s anger continues to grow," he said, "because they don’t see the leadership on his part."
Some lawmakers wonder if members of Congress have even single-digit approval from the public. "I’d like meet the six percent who approve of Congress," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who has often voted in ways that help hold up legislation, because he is seeking deep spending cuts. "I just don’t know who they are."
In town hall-style meetings, polls and interviews, voters have expressed disgust and frustration with the divided Congress in which so little legislative progress is made that the government nearly shut down recently over a disagreement between Republicans and Democrats over how to pay for disaster aid. The nation’s stubbornly high unemployment rate has begotten a sense of desperation among voters that seems to stretch far beyond the normal pro forma disgust with Congress.
"This election cycle is somewhat unprecedented because of these historically low approval ratings," said Nathan L. Gonzales, an editor at the Rothenberg Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter that rates 77 House races as competitive so far, a relatively low figure compared with 2010. "But because of redistricting, in the ways that these districts are drawn, it insulates a majority of the body from being thrown out."
One potential result is unlikely to soothe the public. Consider the prospect that a Democratic gain of a few seats in the House or a Republican takeover of the Senate that leaves them well shy of a 60-vote majority could result in even more entrenched gridlock, not less.
"It is plausible that Republicans lose seats in the House and gain them in the Senate," said John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington University. "Republicans would still be able to pass stuff in the House, but it would just be harder. Where they would lose seats would be in moderate districts, which would leave the conservative faction of the House gaining more power. You could get tenuous control of the Senate by Republicans, but maybe not with a 60-vote majority. So those things are just a recipe for even more challenges going forward."