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Those Sinking Polls

An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll earlier this month showed that public approval of Congress’ performance has sunk to 28 percent, the lowest in 10 years. We understand why that’s happened, but we also think it’s at least partly a bum rap.

Congress presents a terrible image to the country — one of nonstop partisan warfare, much of it petty. However, the 109th Congress is on its way to getting a fair amount done this year, which the public may not appreciate. And yet, there’s a lot left undone, especially on the internal management of Congress itself. The bottom line: It’s within Congress’ own power to get right with the American people.

Some allies of the Republican leadership dismiss the polls by saying that voters habitually hold Congress in low esteem even as they believe that their own Member is doing a great job. There’s some truth in that, and Congress’ image has indeed been worse than it is now. In 1992, amid the House Bank scandal, approval was down to 15 percent. But when voters were asked this summer whether their own Representative deserves to be re-elected, only 39 percent said yes — the lowest since 1994, when, as everyone around here knows, the public decided to execute a decisive change in management.

That may or may not happen this year — gerrymandering of House districts makes it harder than it used to be — but the poll results do suggest that Congress’ bad image is rubbing off on individual Members. The polls don’t tell us specifically what the public doesn’t like, but it’s a fair bet they don’t like what they see most often on television — combat and quarreling seemingly conducted for sheer partisan advantage. Members can blame it on the cable channels and the Internet, and Republicans can blame it on Democrats and vice versa, but that shouldn’t make it any less worrisome. In politics, perception is reality.

Well, almost. As we say, this Congress’ reality is rather better than its image. After years of fruitless wrangling, a bankruptcy overhaul got passed. An energy bill and a highway bill are close to passage. The House has approved all 13 appropriations bills already, and three have passed both chambers. It’s possible that the year may not end with Congress hastily passing a monster omnibus money bill that no one has had time to read prior to the vote. Our readers may not agree with everything Congress has passed, and we don’t take a stance on the the merits. But this Congress has at least been accomplishing some of its key priorities.

There certainly are gaps in Congress’ performance. One of the major sources of the institution’s low esteem is wrangling over the ethics of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas). DeLay himself asked for an investigation by the House ethics committee. That committee still isn’t staffed and ready to work. Legislation to regulate 527 political committees is going nowhere. The terms of four out of the six members of the Federal Election Commission have expired, and no one has been named to replace them.

Responsibility for Congress’ reputation lies mainly with its leaders. They can expect to be attacked by Democrats; attacking is what opposition parties do when they smell opportunity. The antidotes are substantive accomplishment and the ability to say, “We tried to accommodate the opposition.” There’s some progress on the first front, though not enough. On the second, there’s next to none.