(from Roll Call)
Despite the historic aspects of the presidential election, Congress continues its dismal reputation among voters. A Fox poll November 2 showed an 18%-75% approve-disapprove job rating for Congress, with other polls just as bad or worse. CBS/New York Times recorded 15%-75% October 29, NBC/Wall Street Journal an even more bottom-dwelling 12%-79% October 20, and only AP (23%-74%, Oct. 20), and CNN (23%-76%, Oct. 5) even reflect an approval in the 20's.
Regardless of the natural inclination to blame the Administration-in-power for these horrific numbers and to say the approximately 20-seat House Democratic pickup and six or more Senate show Republicans are the root cause, the approval numbers spread the wealth to both sides almost equally. While it is true that President Bush now ranks at a historic all-time low of 24% approval according to CNN, the Harris poll completed September 21 shows that 21% rate the job Democrats in Congress are doing as "excellent" or "pretty good", whereas 75% say "only fair" or "poor". Republicans actually did a point better: 22% versus 74%. However, among congressional "leaders", Democrats do a bit better than their counterparts. When asked "Do you approve or disapprove the way Democratic leaders in Congress are handling their job?", respondents in the CNN poll October 5 were 34%-64% approve-disapprove for Democratic leaders, and 27%-71% for Republicans.
For those of us who have worked on the Hill for a major part of our lives, and for Members of Congress who devote themselves to the institution, these numbers are not only distressing but shocking. We all want Congress to be looked up to as an honored bulwark of democracy where youth ought to aspire to work as staff or even be elected, and parents should encourage their children to see Congress as a high and honored career.
Leaders on both sides of the House and Senate--including Reps. Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, Jim Clyburn, and John Boehner, and Senators Harry Reid, Richard Durban, and Mitch McConnell--all have spent their lives in devotion to the institution of the Congress. Clearly, they want it to succeed in the public's eyes. There are some steps they could take to restore enthusiasm for Congres
First, downplay the regular biennial battles over who chairs which committees and who wins which open leadership posts. Those fights have occurred before and will again and again--they happen in every congress and are part of a democratic process. Don't let the November 10 Wall Street Journal headline be right that "Rift Over Key Committee Post Threatens to Distract Democrats from Agenda."-
Second, in a closed caucus, Leadership should say to all members of both parties in both chambers: End the corruption NOW. Explain to all members that the message from Foley to Stevens to Jefferson, and earlier from Rostenkowski to Delay, is horrendous to the public's and our children's perception of the institution. Just quit it--no more illegal gifts, trips, or illicit sex--you are and must act like the role models we all want to be.
Third, enact realistic bills in the early Administration agenda--such as an economic recovery and jobs plan, S-Chip (state children's health care), stem cell research, and an Iraq timeline guideline (with maneuverability) paralleling the Iraqi government's goals. However, agendas too are a regular occurrence and much of them are regularly enacted. The Republican leadership under Newt Gingrich passed the "Contract for America"- in 1995 and the Democratic-led House under Reps. Pelosi and Hoyer passed virtually every promised bill in early 2007. Without public perception of success, it does not change the approval numbers for Congress as a whole if the minority unjustifiably blasts and gets coverage for inaccurately alleging a "do-nothing Congress". That hurts everyone. It's time for a restoration of the civility and effectiveness of the Tip O'Neill-Bob Michel congress of the 70's and 80's.
Thus, fourth, and a critical piece, is enhanced public awareness outreach for the good things Congress does in fact do. A far more aggressive television, radio, print, and internet campaign including regular leadership opeds, interviews, and appearances emphasizing the positive congressional agenda would be enormously helpful.
Fifth, cutting the last two year's record 94 filibusters, cloture blocks, and vetoes of bills including on Iraq, health care, and energy will help--and the reduction will occur naturally with the higher majority numbers and Democratic president. The Republicans should improve bills instead of resorting to campaign rhetoric blasting one-party-rule. Likewise, Democrats must respect and encourage Republican involvement in bill drafting.
Finally, the House and Senate should hold joint or separate hearings or if necessary, create a new Blue Ribbon Commission on Steps to Restore the Reputation of Congress, generate a public report, and then do what the recommendations say. The hearings or commission should have, as witnesses or members, leaders of both parties and other expert and regular Americans.
With effort, Congress can return to its intended lofty role as the people's leaders.
Before spending six years in the White House, Robert Weiner worked on Capitol Hill for sixteen years for Reps. John Conyers (D-MI), Charles Rangel (D-NY), Claude Pepper (D-FL), Ed Koch (D-NY), and Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA). He now heads a public affairs and issue strategies group. Rebecca Vander Linde assisted in researching this article.