Polls are confusing when they are intended to form opinion rather than to reflect it. Take the favorability ratings of Congress - 9% according to Gallup, the lowest since polling began in 1974. Outlets like CBS , The Hill, and the Huffington Post like to use this number to make President Obama's 40% approval ratings look good, and to attach blame to the Republican House and its Tea Party members. The number is right, but the interpretation is way off base.
First, a small parsing of the data:
- Congress includes Harry Reid's Senate as well as John Boehner's House. Polls don't usually distinguish.
- Approval as of November was 9% among Republicans, 8% among Independents and 10% among Democrats. Republicans and Independents had actually gone down since Republicans caved on the October shutdown. While the media celebrates compromise, a lot of Republicans and Independents clearly favor taking a hard line on spending.
Second, a few procedural reminders:
- When Republicans took over the House in 2010 they banned earmarks and, despite some quarreling, they retained that provision in the current House. Whatever else the merits may be, this has reduced the ability of leadership to reward members for loyal behavior, and placed greater emphasis on satisfying their constituents.
- Republicans also have six year term limits for committee chairs - with a few notable waivers such as Paul Ryan on the Budget Committee. While the increased turnover eliminates independent feifdoms, it also has the effect of promoting chairs that reflect the views of the Speaker. More influence within the leadership offsets less with the members.
- Since the 90s, Republicans have generally followed the Hastert Rule, no Republican Speaker should bring a bill to the floor which does not have the support of a majority of the Republican caucus. Democrat votes may still be needed if the majority of the caucus does not make up a majority of the House, but it does prevent a Democratic Bill which would pass with a few Republican votes. This is critical to maintain relevance for a party which does not hold the Senate or the Presidency. (Boehner's one major exception was the tax act of 2012 which kept most of the "Bush tax cuts", but did raise upper income rates over the opposition of most Republicans.)
A few comments on what has been accomplished:
- Comprehensive alternatives have been offered to Democratic programs - Paul Ryan's "Roadmap for America's Future", and the Congressional Republican Study Committee's comprehensive alternative to Obamacare - to name a couple.
- A combination of the Budget Control Act of 2011 (which cut projected 10 year spending by $1.2 trillion and averted a default and a shutdown) and sequestration in March of 2013 (which cut an additional $1.2 trillion in 10 year spending) have been contentious and - in the latter case - ham-handed, but they, the tax increases of 2012, and a gradually improving economy have reduced the deficit from $1.4 trillion in FY 2009 to $680 billion in FY 2013 - about 4.1% of GDP. The recent Ryan-Murray two year budget deal backs off a bit, but doesn't change the direction.
- Some items which were originally passed with sunset provisions have been allowed to lapse: the reduction in Social Security taxes in 2013, and the extension of unemployment compensation in 2014.
And some conjecture on what is to come:
- The two year budget deal did not solve the debt ceiling which will again be breached in about March. Republicans will have little leverage here, but might just extend it to the Fall to ensure that the subject of financial responsibility which favors Republicans is in the public mind when we elect the next Senate.
- Paul Ryan will apparently defer any run for President to bring his conservative intellect to the chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee which would have lead responsibility on tax reform, Medicare, and Social Security. At 43 he can wait.
- And in the most important poll of Congressional approval - the one held every other November - sages such as Charile Cook and Stu Rothenberg are talking of an historic Democratic collapse and "all but erasing any chances that the party can win back the House next year" following the Obamacare fiasco.
Facing a Democrat Senate and a liberal Democrat president John Boehner, Paul Ryan, and their associates haven't done bad at all - at least on the financial stuff.
This week's video discusses Vladimir Putin's latest one-upping of Obama - a $15 billion loan and natural gas deal to keep Ukraine in the Russian orbit instead of moving toward the European Union. Earlier this year he gave NSA traitor Edward Snowden sanctuary in Russia and brokered a deal in Syria to keep the US out and Assad in power. Maybe Barack will do better in 2014.