Commentary: Like your member of Congress, distrust Congress, fear health-care changes
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 27, 2009 - According to the Gallup Poll of Aug. 19, President Barack Obama's approval rating has fallen to 51 percent -- his lowest mark thus far. Lest he despair, the same poll found that only 33 percent of Americans approve of the job that Congress is doing. While slightly more than half of voters presently back the president, just less than one in three support Congress.
When George W. Bush left office, he set a record for the lowest approval rating ever registered for a departing chief executive: 22 percent. Despite that dismal showing, he still managed to finish ahead of our federal legislators who at that time managed to convince a whopping 19 percent of their constituents that they knew what they were doing.
A Rasmussen poll from May of this year asked voters which branch of government they most trusted. The Supreme Court won with 34 percent; the president finished second at 27 percent. Congress came in a distant third at 13 percent, well below the 26 percent who either didn't trust anybody or who had never thought about the matter.
That 13 percent figure, incidentally, mirrors Dick Cheney's departing approval rating. Though the former VP left office ranked just below toenail fungus on the popularity index, he still managed to inspire the same level of public trust as did Capitol Hill.
Rasmussen also reports that, by a margin of 2-to-1, Americans believe Congress "will always make things worse." Fifty-five percent suspect that most congressional members "cheat on their income taxes." Two-thirds trust their own "economic judgment" over that of the Congress.
Given the above findings, you'd never guess our federal legislators are elected but indeed they are. Further, they enjoy a rather alarming retention rate.
Every two years, the entire House and one-third of the Senate stand for election. In 2008, 94 percent of incumbent representatives were returned to office, as were 83 percent of the sitting senators who were up for re-election.
We thus confront what might be termed the "Congressional Paradox": While an overwhelming majority of the electorate disapproves of the job that Congress is doing, a similar percentage consistently votes to re-elect its members.
Political scientists explain that, while most voters distrust Congress as a whole, they tend to like their individual representatives. Multiply that trend by 435 House districts and 100 Senate seats and you wind up with a widely reviled institution composed of 535 well-respected people.
A similar phenomenon can be seen in the city of St. Louis. The Board of Aldermen consists of 28 members -- the same number as in 1950 when the population of the city proper was over twice its current size. Although there is general theoretical agreement that the board is too big, as a matter of practicality, virtually no one wants to give up their particular alderman.
Because voters rarely vent their outrage at the institution on the individuals they can actually vote for (or against), nobody's held responsible for collective folly. This lack of accountability creates what is known as a moral hazard -- the tendency of people to behave recklessly when they believe they will not suffer the consequences of their actions.
The concept of moral hazard also explains why harsh criminal penalties fail to deter crime. Law-breakers tend to be optimists -- they don't plan to get caught. If you don't intend to pay the price, who cares about cost? Hence, Mark Twain's observation that "... there is no distinctly American criminal class except Congress."
We are witnessing a rare exception to the general rule of congressional immunity. When our legislators set out to revamp the health-care industry, Joe Six-Pack and Suzy Soap-Opera awoke from their civic slumber long enough to notice that something was afoot that could have a direct and immediate impact on their lives.
When members of Congress returned to their home districts for summer recess, they were shocked to find well-organized and stridently vocal opposition to their reform proposals. Admittedly, much of this outrage was manufactured and promoted by the special interests that profit most from the status quo, but there was an undeniably genuine element to it as well.
Adherents of the "tea-bag party" flocked to town-hall meetings to shout down their stunned representatives. While their behavior was boorish and many of their concerns paranoid or exaggerated, the exercise wasn't totally counter-productive because it did get the message across that someone was paying attention.
Actually, this is how the system is supposed to work. Rather than listening to the fawning praise of well-heeled lobbyists, the legislators got an earful from the irate schmucks who sent them to the neighborhood of K-Street in the first place.
With off-year elections looming in 2010, a chastised Congress will reconvene after Labor Day to continue the health-care debate. What, if anything, they come up with is anybody's guess but you can rest assured that it won't be the product of moral hazard. When political lives are on the line, responsible reasoning and prudent caution suddenly become fashionable.
And how long will this new-found political awareness endure before the public drifts back into comfortable apathy? In the words of Jack Kennedy, "we'll know more later ..."
M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon.