According to Gallup, Congress’ approval rating is currently hovering around 18% - not a record low (which occurred in October 2013 when approval was at 11%), and not a record high (which occurred in October 2001 when approval was at 84%). Over the last 20 years, Congress' approval rating has more often been under 20% than it has been over 20%. Given the importance of Congress, it is worth studying why this approval rating is so low.
Partisanship Drives Approval Ratings Down: Congress has become increasingly partisan, and the only view the public gets of Congress is largely one of both sides in strong opposition of each other. This is not all that surprising given that recent studies have shown that partisanship drives press coverage and social media clicks - those who are more partisan are also more well known, have a bigger platform, and can have impact beyond the back and forth of legislation. In other words, there is a real incentive, in some sense, to push a partisan narrative.
The average voter does not see Congress working together - they see bitter battles, extreme positions on policies, and a lack of progress. When Congress united around responses to 9/11 and the COVID pandemic, approval ratings spiked. The public responded positively to Congress coming together and will continue to, but that is certainly not the norm.
Candidates Run Against Congress: Other than Congress, there may be no job on the planet where the average job candidate spends much of their time criticizing the organization they are hoping to work for. Nobody interviews at a company and uses talking points to highlight how awful the company is. However, that is exactly the playbook for candidates running for Congress today - criticize the institution, run as an outsider, and pledge to be the one to fix Congress. When hundreds of policymakers (or potential policymakers) on the ballot are painting a picture of Congress that is not exactly favorable, it is not surprising that the public has a low approval of the institution. This phenomenon is not likely to change - especially since when voters are polled about their own Members of Congress, the average approval is above 50%.
Most Policy Never Makes the Headlines: There is actually a good amount of important bipartisan work being done every day in Congress (see the work from the China Committee this year or the Modernization Committee last year). However, since partisanship drives headlines, a group of policymakers from both sides of the political aisle working together is not that appealing of a story. What is even more bizarre is that if it did make the headlines, it would quickly be overrun by partisan gamesmanship. Bipartisanship is very much alive, but you would never know that from monitoring social media or watching much of the coverage from the networks. Given the importance of many of these policies that are moving through the legislative process without fanfare, it is unfortunate that they do not get the attention they deserve.
Who is Standing Up for Congress? Nobody. Congress would benefit from a good PR campaign from within, but the forces and narratives are too strong for policymakers to become chief defenders of the institution (and who would cover that in the press?). We should probably expect the approval railings to stay low and appreciate the few moments when a spike in approval reflects Congress coming together on an important issue.