Should Members of Congress Care About Disapproval of Congress?

[Guest Post by Michael Ensley]

An oft-noted paradox is that Americans hate Congress but love their members of Congress. Distaste of Congress is so deep-seeded in American politics that it has long been common for candidates (including incumbents) to run for Congress by running against it (Richard Fenno 1977).


In a recent post on the Washington Post, Chris Cillizza cites a recent Gallup Poll showing that 46 percent of respondents approved of their representatives, while only 16 percent approved of Congress. The troubling pattern for Cilizza was that, despite Congress’ apparently poor performance, most members handily win reelection (e.g., more than 90 percent in 2012) .

Cillizza suggests psychological biases are behind this paradox:

There’s a natural tendency to assume your guy or gal isn’t like everyone else — how could they be bad since you voted for them? — and they are doing everything they can to make things better up there/down there/out there in Washington.

Another possibility is that voters elect representatives who share their views. As an amalgam, Congress as a whole is not very representative of any given constituency. In addition to having more representative policy views, members win support back home by steering and claiming credit for government benefits and by providing assistance in dealing with bureaucratic agencies (see the recent article by Jeffrey Harden (Legislative Studies Quarterly)).

But if Fenno is right that “members run for Congress by running against it,” do members have any electoral incentive to invest in the collective outputs and reputation of their institution? Does public disapproval of Congress matter for their own reelection prospects? Or, as Cillizza suggests, is there a bright line between voter evaluations of their own representatives, and feelings about Congress?

Political science research finds that incumbents are not as safe as they appear. One important limitation of focusing on reelection rate percentages is that incumbents sometimes choose to retire rather than face defeat ( Kernell and Jacobson (1983). General turnover in Congress is substantially higher than 10% – often twice as high or more. In 2010, for example, the Republican Party gained more than 60 seats as many Democratic incumbents decided “to spend more time with their families” or were defeated.

Systematic studies of elections over longer time spans also indicate that incumbents pay an electoral penalty when public approval of Congress is low. The question of interest is really not whether members should care, but which members should care.  Jones and McDermott (2009) find that representatives and senators of the majority party win by smaller margins and are more likely to be defeated when Congress is less popular. In our research, public approval of Congress is related to whether incumbents of the majority party return to office under unified control, but also to whether incumbents of both parties return to office under divided control (figure below, from chapter 3 of Congress and the Politics of Problem Solving).


Understanding which members are most likely to bear the brunt of publc assessments of congressional performance may help us to better appreciate why lawmakers sometimes work together to solve important problems facing the nation, and why they sometimes don’t.