Great news: Congress trusted less than lobbyists and used-car salespeople

Once again, a major polling organization tests the rating of Congress, and once again, political pundits like myself get a chance at a punchline or two.  This time it’s Gallup, whose latest survey shows that public trust in members of Congress has dropped to the bottom of their charts — slightly below that of lobbyists and car salespeople:

Sixty-four percent of Americans rate the honesty and ethical standards of members of Congress as “low” or “very low,” tying the record “low”/”very low” rating Gallup has measured for any profession historically. Gallup has asked Americans to rate the honesty and ethics of numerous professions since 1976, including annually since 1990. Lobbyists also received a 64% low honesty and ethics rating in 2008.

This year’s update, from a Nov. 28-Dec. 1 Gallup poll, finds Americans rating the honesty and ethical standards of 3 medical professions — nurses, pharmacists, and doctors — the highest of the 21 professions tested. At the other end of the spectrum, Americans give the least positive honesty and ethics ratings to members of Congress, lobbyists, car salespeople, and telemarketers. …

In general, Congress members’ honesty and ethics ratings have never been that positive, averaging 15% very high or high and peaking at 25% in 2001. What has changed in recent years is the growing proportion of Americans rating their honesty and ethics as very low or low, rising from 22% in 2001 to 64% today.

Yes, this is all very amusing — and mainly meaningless.  When Americans rate Congress by approval rating or levels of trust, the results generate headlines because one can guarantee that the number will be low.  Thanks to an increasingly polarized electorate, an institution that includes a healthy percentage of political opponents will always get low ratings, especially with polarization running so high.  When people hear “Congress,” they visualize their political betes noires, not their own Representative.  It conjures up images of Nancy Pelosi for Republicans and John Boehner for Democrats (or Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell, respectively).

Why do I know this is meaningless?  Consider the re-election pattern for Congressional incumbents, tracked by Open Secrets.  “Few things in life are more predictable than the chances of an incumbent member of the U.S. House of Representatives winning reelection,” they proclaim, and they’re right.  The Tea Party midterm elections were the toughest on incumbents in 40 years, but can you guess what the incumbent re-election rate was in 2010?  85%.  It was the first time in ten cycles that it dropped below 90%.

In the Senate it’s a little more volatile, but only by degree.  The last cycle’s incumbent return rate was rather unremarkable at 84%, within the typical range we’ve seen in the last 30 years.  The realigning election of 2006 produced a 79% return rate, same as 2000 and well above the 55% seen in 1980, the last time we had a significant level of change among incumbents.

People feel free to insult Congress, but for the most part they’re satisfied with their own Representatives and Senators, or at least are not dissatisfied enough to throw them out.  It’s easier to just tell people how dishonest and untrustworthy Congress as a whole is than to do something about it.