Constituents Disgusted With Do-Nothing Congress

Members of Congress failed to reach many agreements this year, and that didn't go unnoticed by the American people. Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, tells Linda Wertheimer that polls shows "historic levels of public discontent with Congress."

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Now, to a look at what the year ahead might mean for Congressional lawmakers. Congress spent much of its time this year failing to reach agreement, that did not go unnoticed. The American people have a low opinion of what they think is a do-nothing Congress. So low, it's breaking records according to Pew Research Center pollster, Andrew Kohut.

ANDREW KOHUT: We've been seeing historical levels of public discontent with Congress. A Gallup poll has 11 percent approving of Congress - they've never had a number that low. We find as much as 50 percent of the public saying that this Congress has accomplished less than usual. We've been asking this question since 1994, we never had a number that high.

WERTHEIMER: You say American people are more disgusted than usual with Congress. Who gets the blame for that?

KOHUT: The incumbents. We find only 50 percent of the public saying their own Congressmen deserves re-election. It only has gotten that low once before, and that was in 2010. And what happened in 2010? We had 58 members of Congress who lost their jobs. If these numbers stay like this, you will see a lot of member of Congress lose their jobs.

WERTHEIMER: But what party? Is one party taking it a little harder than the other?

KOHUT: Well, both parties are being blamed, but the Republicans are being blamed more. By a margin of 40 to 23, the public blames the Republican leaders more so than the Democratic leaders for this Congress accomplishing less.

This isn't the first time we've seen this measure. We saw the same thing at the time of the debt ceiling debate where no one came out looking good, the president didn't come out looking good, the Democratic leadership didn't come out looking good, but who came out looking worse is the Republicans.

And what has happened for the Republican Party, much to its detriment, is it's come to be seen as the party who takes extreme positions. By 53 to 33, the Republicans, not the Democrats, are seen as holding extreme positions. And the Democrats are seen as more willing to work with the other side to get things done than the Republicans.

WERTHEIMER: Although your poll shows that Democratic voters are critical of Congress, Republican voters are much more critical of Congress. The Republican base is very mad at their own Republicans.

KOHUT: Not only are they more critical of Congress, they're more critical of their own leadership. We ask people to rate the leaders, Democratic leaders and Republican leaders, and only 49 percent of the Republicans approved of the Republican leaders, compared to 60 percent of the Democrats approving of their own leaders.

So there's discontent within the base. But it's discontent with it not accomplishing anything. We saw the same thing in attitudes for the Tea Party. Their image of the Tea Party has really plummeted over the past year. It's even dropped in the districts where the Tea Party members come from.

WERTHEIMER: One thing that has not changed in your poll, is that the American people are very concerned about the economy. That's their number one issue.

KOHUT: Extremely concerned about the economy. Jobs continue to be the number one issue. What we do see is a growing number of people, over the past five months, saying that they've been hearing a mix of good and bad economic news, not just bad economic news.

We've also seen President Obama's approval ratings increase modestly. We now have somewhat greater numbers saying they approve of him than disapprove of him. Back in August, a plurality disapproved of him.

WERTHEIMER: We've talked about the swing in the electorate that happened in 2010, when numbers of Republicans were elected to Congress. Do you see that this shift that we're looking at now in this poll, do you think those attitudes will harden? Are we going to swing again?

KOHUT: You know, there are so many independents who aren't anchored to party, and this is such a hot time politically, in terms of people's beliefs, there's a great deal of volatility in these numbers. So it's very hard to predict, but if you look at the trends over the past six months, you really see the Republicans beginning to take the heat, and not in a positive position they should be in, given the fact that they are going to face a pretty weakened incumbent president.

WERTHEIMER: Andy, thank you very much.

KOHUT: You're welcome.

WERTHEIMER: Andrew Kohut is president of the Pew Center for the people in the press. If you want to look at the whole poll, take a look at pewresearch.org.

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