PRINCETON, NJ -- Newly elected members of Congress are being sworn in on Tuesday in Washington at a time when Americans are very negative in their views of Congress. In Gallup's most recent reading -- based on interviewing in December, the final month of the previous Congress -- only 20% of Americans said they approved of the way Congress is handling its job, and for all of 2008, congressional approval averaged only 19%.
The congressional job approval average for 2008 included the all-time Gallup low point of 14% in July. The general pattern for last year included slightly higher ratings as 2008 began, a bottoming out in the summer, and a slight improvement as the year ended.
The current low ratings of Congress are down from the already-low averages of 27% in 2007 and 25% in 2006. Ratings for Congress were higher in the earlier years of the decade, including a 56% average in 2001 and a 54% average in 2002, both of which reflect at least in part the generally positive way in which Americans rated governmental institutions after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Despite the fact that Democrats control both houses of Congress, rank-and-file Americans who identify themselves as Democrats are only slightly more positive about Congress than are independents or Republicans.
Twenty-four percent of Democrats in Gallup's December update approved of the job Congress is doing, compared to 18% of both independents and Republicans.
A separate USA Today/Gallup poll in December showed that Americans' approval of both "the Republicans in Congress" and "the Democrats in Congress" is at least somewhat higher than the overall generic approval of Congress. This is in part because the Americans who identify with each party give their party relatively high ratings (52% of Republicans approve of the Republicans in Congress, and 60% of Democrats approve of the Democrats in Congress), causing the overall average to go up.
Still, even though higher than the overall approval of Congress, approval of the Democrats in Congress is not high on an absolute basis, with a majority of Americans disapproving of the way Democrats are handling their jobs. Approval of the Republicans in Congress is just slightly above the generic approval.
It may be clichéd to say so, but it is clear that returning and newly elected members of the U.S. Congress have their work cut out for them as they gather in the nation's capital to open the 111th Congress. Three-quarters of the American public, deeply dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country and deeply dissatisfied with the economy, disapprove of the way Congress is handling its job. The only good news may be that virtually the only direction for the new Congress to go is up.
Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,009 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Dec. 4-7, 2008. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.