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August 14, 2013 3:01 PM A Frustrating Mess

By Ed Kilgore

We’ve all heard, ad infinitum, the claim that the chronic and deepening public dissatisfaction with Congress is attributable to excessive partisanship—you know, the two parties’ equally obdurate refusal to sit down and work out compromises that would please David Brooks.

But the latest Gallup assessment of Congress’ terrible approval ratings notes another factor you do not hear much about: divided party control of Congress, or too little partisanship. Here’s Gallup’s Jeffrey Jones:

A key factor contributing to Congress’ lower ratings is divided party control of Congress, with the Republicans having a majority in the House of Representatives and Democrats with a majority of Senate seats. Neither Republicans nor Democrats in the general public have a strong sense of party loyalty to the current divided Congress, with 13% of Republicans and 17% of Democrats approving in the Aug. 7-11 poll. Party control of Congress has been divided since 2011.
In years when one party had control of both houses of Congress, that party’s supporters gave Congress higher job ratings. This helped increase Congress’ overall approval rating. Specifically, Democrats rated Congress more favorably than Republicans in 1993-1994 and 2007-2010, and Republicans gave Congress higher approval ratings than Democrats in 1995-2006.

That makes sense once you think about it instead of imagining Americans want a divided Congress where everybody compromises. But check this out:

[T]here is evidence that the divided Congress’ recent low ratings reflect more than an absence of party loyalty. Notably, Democrats’ average annual ratings of Congress since 2011 have been lower than their ratings in 11 of the 12 years in which Republicans had control of both houses. The exception was 2006, the year Democrats regained majority control in that year’s midterm elections, when 16% of Democrats approved of Congress.
Likewise, Republicans’ ratings of Congress during the last two years are lower than in most of the years in which Democrats held control of both houses since 1993. The exception was 2010, when President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law and Republicans subsequently took back control of the House in that year’s midterm elections.

Now you can suppose this phenomenon is due to the thwarted desire for compromise even among partisans. Or you can accept the much more obvious explanation that divided control of Congress is sorta like how Jimi Hendrix described Manic Depression—as a “frustrating mess” with no action and no accountability.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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