If the U.S. Congress was one of the kingdoms on HBO's "Game of Thrones," the only people who would support it would be members of the Stark family: in other words, a clan of rather honorable but naïve people whose numbers have been shrinking weekly to the verge of extinction. The latest assessment of Congress' low esteem came the other day from the Gallup polling organization, which says Congress has achieved historic unpopularity.
This is a god-awful state of affairs for the nation. And it presents special challenges for Republicans.
The new survey puts congressional approval at 10 percent, which is not only the lowest rating ever for Congress, Gallup says, but the worst it "has ever found for any institution it has measured since 1973." That's the year Gallup began measuring public approval of Congress. Even then, approval was only 42 percent, and that was in the midst of the Watergate scandal, which was a dark time during which Congress' star shined brightly.
To put some perspective on what these crummy approval numbers mean, another polling organization, Public Policy Polling, decided earlier this year to provide some context. In the PPP matrix, cockroaches, traffic jams and the much-maligned rock band Nickelback all found higher levels of approval than the U.S. Congress.
You might ask why this matters. After all, people have been criticizing and poking fun at the institution of Congress since ink began to dry on Article I of the Constitution in 1787.
The problem is that it has gotten so much worse. If people don't trust the institution to do its job, or trust the product the institution produces, bad things happen.
If the organization produces a product like cars or cell phones, people simply choose to buy another product from another company. But what happens when that organization produces laws and public policy? Might people quit obeying the laws that institution crafts? And what happens when we are faced with another national crisis – a declaration of war, a need to investigate presidential wrongdoing on the scale of Watergate, or something the likes of which we haven't faced before – and the institution we depend on doesn't have the respect of one-tenth of the population?
This is an existential question for both Republicans and Democrats, but it is especially relevant for those members of Congress who got elected by running campaigns against Congress. "Washington is broken" is one of the familiar mantras of many winning politicians. But this battle cry is not followed with ideas on how to fix things; instead it's accompanied with oaths to smash what's left into even smaller pieces.
Can you think of another situation in which large numbers of people get hired to work in an organization by going around in public saying how much they hate this organization and how much they loathe the other people who work there? I can't.
Republicans are in the midst of yet another attempt to understand and communicate what the party stands for. Meantime, a significant faction of the party is focused on making Congress even less functional because they are afraid they might lose today's debates over the budget, immigration and which judge is sitting on which court. What this faction does not seem to understand or care about is that they are losing tomorrow's debate about who to trust running the levers of government.
The message this faction is conveying is not that they want government to function more fairly and honestly, but that they would be happy if government quit functioning at all.
Congress is an institution conceived of by George Washington, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin and the other Founders for which guys who wear tricorn hats today proclaim such admiration.
We should not be content to merely laugh and roll our eyes the next time a politician makes a joke about how much we all hate Congress. We need to demand that our members of Congress work to make Congress better. We need Congress to actually function – after all, a functioning Congress is what the Founders had in mind when they created it. Each time a member of Congress throws sand in the gears of the House or Senate, he exacerbates the public's low opinion of the national legislature and worsens a serious risk to the nation. These guys are smashing hammers into the walls instead of repairing the cracks. One day the roof could fall in.