New Congress Has Slightly Higher Ratings, Still Unpopular
Politics

New Congress Has Slightly Higher Ratings, Still Unpopular

by Andrew Dugan

Story Highlights

  • One in five Americans approve of congressional job performance
  • Republican support has increased

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- More than a month into the tenure of the Republican-controlled 114th Congress, the partisan makeover of America's legislative body does not appear to have done much for its popularity. One in five Americans say they approve of the way Congress is handling its job, slightly higher than the 16% approval in the final reading for the 113th Congress, from December. Seventy-five percent of Americans disapprove of Congress.

Congressional Job Approval Ratings: 2001-2015

The Jan. 5-8 reading, also 16%, came in a poll that was conducted partially before the new Congress came into office. The current poll, conducted Feb. 8-11, is the first to be fully conducted since the new Congress took office.

In recent weeks, the new GOP-led Congress has considered a number of high-profile bills such as legislation authorizing the Keystone pipeline, and has conducted confirmation hearings for important posts such as secretary of defense and attorney general. However, Americans as a whole apparently have seen little to justify significantly revising their opinions.

No Post-Election Approval Rally Evident So Far

Rarely does anything close to a majority of the public see Congress positively; the legislative body's long-term average approval rating is 32%. But Congresses that result from "wave" elections -- contests where one party strongly outperforms the other -- usually see an increase in support once their new term begins.

For example, after midterm elections that handed over full control to one party in 1994 and 2006, the new Congress' approval ratings greatly improved, relative to the last reading of the previous Congress. In January 1995, the new Republican Congress was 10 percentage points more popular than the previous Congress, controlled by Democrats, was in December 1994. In January 2007, the new Democratic Congress was 14 points more popular than the prior Congress, controlled by Republicans, was in December 2006.

Congessional Approval and Wave Elections

Many election analysts considered the 2014 midterms a "wave" election, as it not only saw enough GOP Senate candidates win to give that party the majority in that chamber, but it also produced the largest House Republican majority since the Hoover administration in the 1920s.

Nonetheless, in terms of spurring better approval ratings for Congress, the effect of last year's GOP rout has so far been minimal. This could be partly because the 2014 elections saw a less dramatic change in control of Congress -- only one chamber changed party control instead of both, as occurred after the 1994 and 2006 elections. It may also be that Americans' widespread dissatisfaction with government is working as a counterweight on the usual increase in good feeling that occurs when there is a change in party control.

GOP Support for Congress Growing, Still Low

A major reason why approval of Congress increases after a change in party control is that approval ratings among supporters of the new majority party surge. Currently, 27% of self-identified Republicans say they approve of the way Congress is handling its job, up notably from the percentage who said so in January (17%) or December (12%). Democrats' approval rating of Congress is 17% in February and independents' is 18%, basically unchanged compared with January and December.

Change in Approval Ratings of Congress, by Self-Identified Party Affiliation, After Changes in Party Control of Congress

But this spike in GOP approval for Congress is much smaller than the swell of support in other Congresses that took office after major "change elections." For instance, support for Congress more than doubled among Democrats once the Democratic majority took over in 2007 -- from 16% to 39%. And in 1995, when Republicans took the helm of both houses for the first time in 40 years, Republicans' approval of Congress skyrocketed 26 points.

Bottom Line

An organization created to defend the GOP's nascent Senate majority in next year's elections notes on its website that "the U.S. Senate is under new management." And while the promotion of GOP Sen. Mitch McConnell to majority leader has undoubtedly changed the political calculus in Washington, it has done little so far to change most Americans' opinions about Congress.

Given the raft of legislation that may be forthcoming in the following months -- involving authorization of use of military force in Iraq/Syria, granting the president greater power in negotiating trade deals, as well as a potentially contentious bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security -- there may be significant movement on how the public rates Congress, be it good or bad. But for now, even as Washington adjusts to a new political balance, most Americans seem to be taking their time in assessing the new leadership.

Survey Methods

Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted Feb. 8-11, 2015, with a random sample of 837 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. For results based on the total sample of national adults, the margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. All reported margins of sampling error include computed design effects for weighting.

Each sample of national adults includes a minimum quota of 50% cellphone respondents and 50% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by time zone within region. Landline and cellular telephone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods.

Learn more about how Gallup Poll Social Series works.

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