Hating On Congress ... Justified?

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Congress' approval ratings hit an all-time low in December, according to the polling firm Gallup. Host Michel Martin looks at why many Americans seemed to be frustrated with Congress. She hears from NPR Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving and Mark Eaton of the Capitol Steps, a musical political satire group.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Still to come, the latest in our series on the people, ideas and institutions that actually had a good year. And this year, the big retail banks were under fire for imposing new fees and putting more hurdles between customers and their money, and that made it a good year for credit unions. We'll call in our Money Coach Alvin Hall to take a closer look. But first I think everybody agrees on this it's been a pretty bad year for Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NEWS CLIPS)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Seems nearly impossible for our lawmakers to get anything done.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE #2: A stalemate in Congress over extending the payroll tax cut continues.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Poll says that 42 percent say that this 112th Congress is one of the worst...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE#3: So, the democratically controlled Senate backs one version, the Republican House another: gridlock.

MARTIN: Well, that collection of news clips tells part of the story. The latest Gallup poll has approval for Congress at 11 percent. That's the lowest figure since Gallup began asking the question in 1974. So, we wanted to ask what's behind the hate for the folks on Capitol Hill? Is gridlock the whole story or is there more to it? We decided to call upon Ron Elving. He's NPR's senior Washington editor. But for additional perspective, we've also called upon Mark Eaton.

He is a member of that 30-year-old musical political satire group The Capitol Steps. The group started 30 years ago as we said, in 1981, and at that time every member of the group was connected to Congress in some way. So, we thought he might have some insight on this. So, welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Thank you for having me.

MARK EATON: Good to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: So, Mark I'm just going to ask you to tell us the short version of how the Capitol Steps got started?

EATON: Oh, back in the 1981 we were doing a Senate office Christmas party in the office of Senator Percy and we wanted to do a traditional Nativity play, but of course in Congress we couldn't find three wise men or a virgin.

MARTIN: Oh, dear.

EATON: So, we just spun out of control like everything else in Washington, D.C. until we've become what we are today.

MARTIN: Which is an institution?

EATON: Well, we like to think so.

MARTIN: And you offer sort of commentary on things that are happening - invited. People - but you just don't show up randomly and give sort of - that's our job. But has this been a good year for fodder for your group?

EATON: It's always a good year. And luckily for us anytime the material starts to run thin and the elections right around the corner. So, we're going to get something new in the mix.

MARTIN: Well, Ron I'm going to ask you this question. Is it - many of the people who were elected to Congress were elected as part of this wave of Tea Party support, the Tea Party movement. Just as the people who were elected two years before that were elected as part of the Obama wave. So, you would think even though they're not getting along, these are two groups that were elected with support - enthusiastic support - from somebody. So, is it surprising to you that everybody's mad at them now?

ELVING: Not really. Because, really, you could go all the way back to 2006 and say even two years before the Obama election we had a sweep the bums out election, where the Democrats took control of the House and Senate from the supposedly unpopular Republicans and then they repeated that in 2008 as you mentioned and then in 2010 everyone was angry at those Democrats. So, you know, it's not surprising terribly that in the conditions that we're in right now, and of course the country was unhappy about some different things in 2006, but then in 2008 and 2010 primarily the anger was about economic conditions, whether you want to call it an ongoing recession or you want to call it a sluggish recovery; most people don't make a great distinction.

The unemployment rate has remained high and so, that's an underlying condition that keeps the pot boiling as it was boiling in '06 and '08 and '10. I would think though that you have a lot of different reasons that people don't like Congress, and what we have at the moment is the kind of perfect storm that's driven the number of approval - that the number you referred to that 11 percent - to an all time low.

In fact, one wonders, who are those 11 percent, who would actually approve of what this Congress is doing right now. It can't really include that many members of Congress. They're terribly unhappy at what's going on themselves. So, my guess is that about the number of people who misunderstood the question.

MARTIN: Oh, OK. OK. And Ron you've been doing this for a long time. I don't mean to date you but have you ever seen it like this?

ELVING: Not quite like this and I think there are some unique conditions right now. I mean, you not only have the standard dislike of Congress which goes way back through the entire history of the republic, and Congress is usually a punching bag for the country and sometimes the people love the president and sometimes they don't, but they never really love Congress. So, that's the underlying beat. Then you've got a Congress that's divided.

The Democrats in the Senate control the Republicans and House control, so everyone feels free to hate on one chamber or the other if they're a Democrat or a Republican and care about such things. So, you have that accumulation of dislike. Then you've got as I mentioned the economic conditions and then the specific sense of failure and dysfunction like we just saw last week with the attempt to extend the payroll tax cut which is popular.

Obviously people want to pay lower taxes particularly payroll taxes. And so the inability of Congress to get that done just drove everybody to the wall one more time. And then finally, we had these specific stories about the specific misbehavior of individual members of Congress, much of it sexual in nature. But then also this sense that, you know, we've just had stories in the paper the last couple of days about a new study from the Center for Responsive Politics about how the members of Congress are something like twice as wealthy as they were in 1984, adjusted for inflation.

MARTIN: Um-hum.

ELVING: While the rest of the country since 1984 actually has seen its accumulated wealth go down, adjusted for inflation.

MARTIN: Oh. We're taking a closer look at why so many Americans are fed up with Congress this year. Now, that may seem like a silly question but we thought we'd like to dig deeper into the question and Ron Elving is NPR's senior Washington editor who was speaking just now. Also with us, Mark Eaton. He's a part of the singing political satire group The Capitol Steps, a Washington institution, presumably more popular than Congress right now. Mark is it - it may seem counter intuitive but I just wonder is it easier or harder to make fun of an institution that everybody's mad at?

EATON: Well, we've always looked at it a little bit like shooting fish in a barrel but, you know, I think people love laughing at tearing these guys down, because let's face it they all got ego's or they wouldn't be there in the first place and, you know, this every two year switch, I mean, we're a short attention span nation now it seems like and we like to think of, you know, the two-party system as the Republicans are in charge for a while. They screw things up so badly that the Democrats throw a party. Then the Democrats get in charge, they screw things up so bad, then the Republicans party. So, that's where the two party system comes from.

MARTIN: That's where the two party system comes from. And Ron alluded to a couple of scandals which must have offered some fodder for you to remind...

ELVING: Bread and butter.

MARTIN: ...to remind people of this, and this was bipartisan.

ELVING: Um-hum.

MARTIN: Bi-partisan bad behavior. Republican Chris Lee from New York sent an email to a woman he met on Craigslist. He called himself fit, fun and classy and sent a shirtless picture to prove it. Problem is, he's married and had a young child. David Wu, Democrat from Oregon, resigned after some very strange behavior involving his staff and the daughter of a fundraiser. And then, of course there's Anthony Weiner, also a Democrat, who first claimed hackers sent racy pictures to a young woman from his Twitter account but then later had this to say:

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED PRESS STATEMENT)

REPRESENTATIVE ANTHONY WEINER: Over the past few years I have engaged in several inappropriate conversations conducted over Twitter, Facebook, email and occasionally on the phone with women I have met online. I've exchanged messages and photos of an explicit nature with about six women over the last three years.

MARTIN: We know, we know. So Mark, what did you all do with that one?

EATON: Well, you know...

MARTIN: Was it just too cringe-worthy, or you just couldn't resist?

EATON: Well, let's - we love a good sex scandal. And then when you've got the guy's name already built into the joke, that makes it even better. And but, you know, these are the best and brightest and yet they don't understand that every email, every Twitter, everything exists forever. But, you know, in the case of Anthony Weiner, we did a little song about a gal who checks her Twitter account. She was afraid to log onto her Twitter because of what she might see.

EATON: And, you know, in Washington you're judged by the size of your staff, if you're a member of Congress and Weiner, obviously his staff was nothing to shake a stick at.

MARTIN: Oh dear. OK. All right, and finally the last couple of minutes that we have left, Ron, I wanted to ask you if there is anything - and I understand this is a subjective question - that is generally agreed upon that Congress did right? And it's a typical question because obviously if you, you know, one person's gridlock is another person's kind of principled objection. If you say to yourself and you set yourself up in order to stop something you think is bad for the country, you know, for one person that's gridlock but for somebody else that's a principle stance which is kind of necessary. So just, you know, accepting that this is an issue on which people, reasonable people can disagree, if there are any left - is there something that Congress feels it did right that the American people - if they thought about it or generally - or the people who watch Congress closely think that Congress did right this year?

ELVING: I think you'd have to say that that's the essence of the problem. You really put your finger on it. If Congress should - let's say - raise the debt ceiling, which used to be something that was regarded as routine and absolutely necessary, it angered many of the Tea Party base voters who turned out in 2010 for some of these Republicans you mentioned earlier.

So that contributed to a sense of disapproval of Congress on the part of people who supposedly should have been happy that this controversy was being raised in the national consciousness and that the Congress was finally wrestling with this question of ever increasing debt.

But they weren't happy because in the end Congress raised the debt ceiling one more time, and so each time Congress does anything, even if it really does seem to most people to be of necessity, that is angering someone else.

The only thing that comes to mind in the past year that seemed to have really a universal appeal and seemed to be generally accepted by the country was the decision to take certain steps to encourage employers to hire vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. That was virtually the only part, along with the extension of the payroll tax cut, that the president got out of his entire jobs package this fall.

MARTIN: And Mark, I'm going to give you the final word, and this is actually a serious question, because as I mentioned, the group is no longer - every member of the group is no longer connected to Congress, but in its founding back in 1981, every member had some connection to Congress, a congressional staffer or something of that sort. So you still have, I think, relationships, and I'm curious if - you know, when you talk to family members or people kind of outside of Washington for whom this is not funny - this is not funny when they feel that the country is really struggling. There clearly are economic issues which have yet to be addressed. There are long term issues around entitlements, the debt, that have yet to be addressed.

I'm wondering, what you say to them when they say, what's wrong with these people? What do you say?

EATON: Well, we also like to look at it as if you don't laugh at some of this stuff, it will drive you absolutely crazy, and there's always got to be a lighter side to everything. And it might be an old joke, but you know, the opposite of progress is Congress in a lot of people's mind.

You know, let's face it, and so we like to take a lighter side of these issues and might educate people a little bit, but like I say, we want to get them to laugh a little bit about it because you can't just dwell on this stuff and concentrate all the time or it will – it will drive you crazy.

MARTIN: Can you get people on both sides of the aisle to laugh?

EATON: Yeah. We're equal opportunity offenders. I mean, sometimes it's difficult because, you know, a couple of years ago when Democrats controlled both houses, you seem like you're picking on them a little bit. They had the White House as well.

Back in the Bush years, it was the same thing. Republicans said, oh, you're being too hard on them. But we go after everybody equally and if we are a little too hard on one person, just hold on. We'll go after the next guy in a second.

MARTIN: Well, that's something everybody can agree on.

EATON: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Thank goodness. Mark Eaton is a member of the political satire group the Capital Steps. They are a musical group that performs political satire here in the Washington, D.C. area. They were founded in 1981. He was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Ron Elving is NPR's senior Washington editor and he was kind enough to join us from his home office in Washington, D.C.

Thank you both so much and happy holidays to you both.

EATON: Back at you.

ELVING: Thank you, Michel.

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