We the People Lose While the Increasingly Unpopular Congress Continues to Win

United States Capitol Building
The United States Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. Photo by Zach Berger/Campaign Legal Center

The American public’s opinion of Congress is at an all-time low.  A NBC/WSJ poll released six days ago reveals that 83% of Americans are dissatisfied with the job Congress is doing.  In fact, according to a Think Progress poll published in January, Congress is even less popular than cockroaches and colonoscopies.

Partisanship and inability to get anything done were the most common explanations by voters for the negative assessment of Congress’s job performance.  Americans are fed up with Congress’s unproductive partisan bickering, so much so that nearly six-in-10 voters said that they would defeat and replace every single member of Congress if they had such an option.  So why don’t they?

Perhaps the first factor to consider is that despite persistently abysmal approval ratings, incumbents were reelected at a startling 90% rate in 2012. This is thanks in large part to carefully engineered (i.e. gerrymandered) safe districts that have been created by both Democratic and Republican dominated state legislatures all over the country to protect their party’s elected officials’ seats.  As was exhibited in Nate Silver’s recent post, most members of Congress today represent hyper-partisan landslide districts.  The number of landslide districts has roughly doubled since 1992 and correspondingly, the number of competitive or swing congressional districts has dropped to a mere 35, a third of the total 20 years ago.

As a result, most members of Congress fear no significant threat from the opposing party within their district -- any serious threat will be made from within the party at the primary level.  This explains the pull towards the party base during the primary cycle, when candidates are attempting to appeal to the motivated and largely more ideologically radical voters who usually participate at this stage in the election.  But when the primary is the only true contest, as it is in about 90% of congressional districts, it is in the interest of a member seeking reelection to gear their actions throughout their term toward success at the primary level.  This explains why, despite the public’s disgust over partisan redistricting, the political climate in Congress has become increasingly polarized and plagued by partisan gridlock.

Thus, individual representatives seeking to retain their seats have little incentive to compromise and reach across the aisle, indeed doing so in the short term is likely counter to their interests.  The consequence of lawmakers of both parties gerrymandering their districts to make them safer for incumbents is that the call from American citizens for their representatives to focus on the issues that matter and start solving the nation’s problems will continue to be ignored.