The Other 9 Percent: People Who Approve of Congress

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It seems impossible that anyone would think well of the job our legislative branch is doing, yet some do. Who are these people?

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Recent public opinion polls -- I am sure you've seen them -- suggest that 9 percent of the American public actually approves of Congress and the way it is doing its job. Of course, that was before this weekend's bi-partisan wrangling over the payroll tax cut extension.

Who exactly are these 9 percent?

I am curious, since they are such a distinctive group. After all, 9 percent approval is a historic low, even for Congress, exceeded by the approval ratings for polygamy (11 percent,) BP's handling of the oil spill (16 percent,) banks (23 percent,) and pornography (30 percent.)

So, I went looking for the 9 percent. I called my neighbor, Representative Pete Stark, Democrat of California, assuming that he, after 38 years in Congress, surely approved of what he and his 434 colleagues were doing. Are you one of the 9 percent, Pete?

"Heavens, no!" said Congressman Stark.

And who did he think were the 9 percent?

"Our staff, and our relatives," he said with a laugh, "and probably not all of them." I might add that Pete said this on Sunday, as he headed in to the Capitol to cast a rare weekend vote that failed to break the deadlock.

So, who are these 9 percent who think Congress is on top of its work these days?

Add up the Congressional staff, who number around 20,000, lobbyists whose clients have come out on top, the famous special interests, the capitol police, the cafeteria staff, even the bloated office of the architect of the Capitol and you still don't come anywhere near the 9 percent, which would amount to some 27 million Americans.

I went to a couple of holiday parties over the weekend and asked everyone I met whether they approved of the way Congress was doing its job. Nope. No 9-percenters there.

If anyone reading this blog is part of the 9 percent, please comment and let me know. And tell me exactly what it is that you approve of, please. Is it the fun way Congress takes everything down to the wire? Is it the tendency, demonstrated again over the weekend and into this week to kick the can down the road?

How about the way Congress dealt with the president's much-advertised jobs bill, which was pronounced D.O.A. when it arrived on the Hill? Did you approve of the way they handled that? Or deficit reduction? Or judicial appointments? Or ambassadorial nominees? Or the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Agency? Do you love the way they advise and consent on these things? Did you approve of the way they flirted with default a few months ago over the debt ceiling, sending the markets into a tailspin and dropping the nation's credit rating? If you like delay, gridlock, logjams and half-a-loaf legislation, I suppose you love Congress.

Just guessing here, but I suspect Barack Obama's greatest shock upon assuming the presidency was how incredibly hard it is to get anything through a divided Congress. That is, a Senate where 60 votes are required to agree on the time of day. And the House of Representatives, controlled by a majority that, as we saw this weekend, can't control its own majority. The President, and all of us, are learning that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell meant precisely what he said after the 2008 elections when he announced that his major goal was to assure that Obama was a one-term president. That, and nothing more, apparently.

None of this Congressional inaction comes cheap, incidentally. This year, the American taxpayer will shell out $5.4 billion to fund Congress, its staff and perks. That includes the members, staff, gold-plated health care, generous pensions, the House gym and chaplains for each chamber. Evidently, the 9 percent feel they are getting their money's worth, since they approve.

So, while the current focus is on presidential race, perhaps more attention should be paid to who leads and controls Congress, that co-equal and disputatious branch of government. How about a few televised debates among the leaders about how they intend to handle things in the next Congress? That could be entertaining.

Meanwhile, will the other 9 percent please stand up?

Image credit: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

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Terence Smith is a special correspondent for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.

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