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Is Dip in Congress’ Numbers a Bad Omen?

A confluence of recent polls showing approval ratings for both President Bush and Congress sliding has some experts wondering whether the numbers signal the first cracks in what could grow into a widening chasm between the public and Washington.

A March Gallup survey showed just 37 percent of those tested approved of the job Congress was doing — down 8 points from a similar poll a month earlier — and matching the mark of September 1999.

A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll also showed that Bush’s approval rating had fallen to 45 percent, a 7-point drop from last month.

A CBS News poll conducted March 20-21 pegged Congressional approval at a relatively dismal 34 percent.

Carroll Dougherty, editor at the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, said he had no specific explanation for the decline in the numbers but speculated that the low Congressional approval rating was due to a general public dissatisfaction with politics.

“Congress takes the brunt of America’s feeling about politicians generally,” Dougherty said. “I see [approval numbers] as a way for people to vent their frustrations about politics and politicians.”

Dougherty said although “everybody was struck” by the Gallup poll, the approval numbers have yet to reach the disastrous level of the early 1990s that led to a Republican takeover of the House and Senate.

The Gallup Congressional approval reached its lowest historical ebb in 1992 (at 18 percent) when the institution was buffeted by a number of financial scandals including the House bank and the Keating Five.

By the fall of 1994, Congressional approval was still mired in the low 30s, signaling the 52-seat gain that delivered House Republicans the majority.

“It is hard to say whether it is a dip or a dive at this point,” said Dougherty of the current Gallup numbers.

Pollsters of both partisan stripes expressed interest in seeing what the unusually high-profile actions Congress has taken in recent weeks will do to its approval numbers in future surveys.

Aside from the nationally televised hearing on steroids in baseball and its involvement in the right-to-die case of Terri Schiavo, Congress has been thrust into prominence in the fight over Social Security reform as well as the debate over the “nuclear option” involving nominees to the federal bench.

With both of the latter issues mired in partisan deadlock, the American people are reminded that Congress seems to have little interest in solving problems that matter in their lives, said Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster with the firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research.

“You have a Congress that came out of this election without a clear mandate about what it should be doing,” said Greenberg, charging that Republican leaders have not directly dealt with the war in Iraq or the economy — the two most important issues to voters in most surveys.

Whit Ayres, a partner in the Republican polling firm Ayres, McHenry and Associates, agreed — to a point.

“People like Congress when Congress is getting things done,” Ayres said. “What people are hearing is gridlock over judges, gridlock over Social Security — gridlock on some of the crucial issues facing the country.”

Ayres added, however, that Congress has already tackled significant issues that simply have not gotten the attention he believes they deserve from the press.

That list includes passage of a bill that seeks to curb class-action lawsuits, forging a long-awaited compromise on bankruptcy overhaul and approval for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Even when polling does show a trend, however, it is not always predictive.

Starting in the spring of 2004, Congressional Democrats expressed significant optimism about “generic ballot” tests that showed their party with a considerable edge over Republicans.

In most election cycles, generic-ballot results fluctuate between a 5-point lead for either party. (Voters who either say they don’t know or who refuse to answer typically number in the single digits.)

However, a handful of independent polls showed a generic Democrat leading a generic Republican by double digits, causing Democrats to make bold predictions about their chances of retaking the House last November.

That optimism proved misplaced as Republicans picked up three seats in the 2004 election — growing their majority to 29 seats.

David Winston, a Republican pollster and founder of the Winston Group, argued that at this early stage of the election cycle most voters are still formulating their opinions on the issues of the day and may feel entirely differently once the election rolls around in 19 months.

“There is not a lot of decision-making at this point,” said Winston, a Roll Call contributing writer. “Both parties have a unique opportunity — the way [voters] are going to make decisions will be based on ideas that either party represents.”

Nicole Duran contributed to this report.

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