Poll: Public already losing patience with new Congress

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 20, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Once again, the public is getting increasingly disgusted with Washington.

It sees a failure to adopt remedies for even the most basic, pressing issues of the day, as Congress struggles to craft a federal budget. And incumbents are getting worried about the political implications.

"It's hurting some of us," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who's up for re-election next year. "They blame everybody."

A new Pew Research Center poll shows that about half of Americans think the debate over spending and deficits has been "generally rude and disrespectful."

There's even bipartisan agreement — 48 percent of Republicans and Democrats have that view, as well as 57 percent of independents. President Barack Obama signed legislation Friday to provide funding to keep the government open until April 8, the sixth such temporary extension in the 6-month-old fiscal year.

Pew surveyed 1,525 adults from March 8-14. The poll's findings suggest the political losers so far have been Republicans, who rode a wave of voter irritation to win control of the House of Representatives last fall.

After the election, 35 percent said Republicans had a better approach to the deficit, expected to reach a record $1.65 trillion this year. This month, that number has plunged to 21 percent.

People don't think Obama has better ideas, either — 20 percent found his approach better, down from November's 24 percent. Total sample margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

The most restless constituency has involved supporters of the conservative tea party movement. After the November election, where backers helped elect dozens of congressional Republicans, three of four movement supporters liked GOP budget plans. This month that figure dropped to 52 percent.

"People are growing impatient," said Carroll Doherty, Pew associate director.

They've been impatient for years. In 2006, voters gave Democrats control of both Houses of Congress for the first time in 12 years. Two years later, Obama, a Democrat, reclaimed the White House for his party after eight years of Republican George W. Bush. Last year, Republicans reclaimed control of the House.

"The American public is getting tired of change elections and then not seeing change. There have been three change elections in a row, but people today figure things are still adrift," said Lee Miringoff, the director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, which conducts the McClatchy-Marist poll.

Political veterans are scrambling to educate their constituents about the deliberate pace of Washington.

"People should understand we do things in baby steps," said Tea Party Express co-founder Sal Russo, of Sacramento, Calif. "We have to remind people that while we just had a historic election, the reality is, we're woefully short of 60 votes in the Senate." Democrats control 53 of the Senate's 100 seats.

But Russo's fighting a world where the public can get instant, nonstop, unfiltered access to Congress and commentary.

Republicans had benefited from that openness during the two-year fight over overhauling the nation's health care system. Procedural delays forced major votes to occur after midnight, and in one case, at dawn on Christmas Eve.

GOP opponents used what looked like procedural chaos to portray Democrats as unable to run Congress effectively. Now, though, it's Republicans who are in charge of the House, and they're feeling the heat.

The public doesn't understand all the nuances of the legislative process, so what they see "reinforces the perception that Washington can't get anything done," said Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the Rothenberg Report, which follows congressional races.

House Republicans, who have a 241-192 majority, have found it relatively easy to win approval of their major initiatives: repealing the health care law, cutting $61 billion from current-year spending, blocking federal funding for public broadcasting and so on.

The stumbling block has been the Senate. Health care repeal and the $61 billion spending cuts died there, and the effort to defund NPR is also expected to go nowhere.

One way to explain the process, Hatch said, is to stress the value of experience.

He talks about how, in January 2009, veteran pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger steered a disabled US Airways plane into the Hudson River in New York City. The passengers and crew all survived.

"Experience matters," said Hatch, "and when you explain that, it makes people stop and think."

What may help incumbents more are two developments.

One is that, unlike the health care fight, the budget battle isn't dominating headlines. Since the start of 2011, three stories have gotten the most attention: The Jan. 8 shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Democrat; the Middle East turmoil, and Japan's earthquake and tsunami.

"Washington's fights have not broken through as a top story," said Doherty of Pew.

Even if they do, the 2012 elections are a long way off. Health care legislation won final approval a year ago, during the primary season.

But if the economy rebounds strongly this year, or a grand budget compromise is reached, process chaos could be long forgotten. In that case, said Gonzales, "results will matter most."

But if the economy continues to stumble, or the budget fight drags on and on, the fractured process could matter a lot.

"If the government shuts down," said Gonzales, "no one really knows what the political fallout will be."

ON THE WEB:

Pew survey

Senate roll call on three-week extension

House roll call on three-week extension

Three-week budget extension details

House Republican spending cuts

President Obama's 2012 budget

Congressional Budget Office budget and economic outlook

MORE FROM MCCLATCHY:

Government shutdown averted for 3 more weeks

Senate rejects 2 partisan budget plans, setting up new talks

House votes to fund government for 2 weeks

McClatchy Newspapers 2011

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service