Thursday, May 13, 2010
Congress has a black eye, and it's starting to swell.
As an institution, its approval ratings bounce near
all time lows, creating a crisis in confidence among
voters. Can Americans count on an institution so
anemic in trust to heal the difficult and major
problems confronting the nation?
Many believe the legislative branch is insular,
arrogant, and dominated by special interests -- and
not without cause.
The current Democratic majority's polarizing behavior
has only reinforced these views by passing partisan
and controversial legislation -- like the health care
bill -- opposed by a majority of Americans, according
to the most recent average of polls aggregated at Real
The House and Senate will never win popularity contests.
Congress underperforms other institutions when it comes
to stirring good feelings. Analyzing polling data from
the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s, political scientists
John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse in their
book Congress as Public Enemy: Public Attitudes Toward
American Political Institutions show the legislature
nearly always lags the presidency and the Supreme Court
when it comes to public confidence.
This pattern continues today. President Obama's approval
now hovers around the 48 percent mark, but Congress's is
only half that (23 percent), according to Real Clear
Historically, incumbent lawmakers took comfort in the
often cited argument by University of Rochester political
scientist Richard Fenno, who asked in a 1975 article,
"If Congress Is The 'Broken Branch' Why Do Americans Love
their Congressmen So Much?" Fenno demonstrated Americans
support their congressmen more than Congress as an
But today even this customary love for incumbents is on
the rocks. A recent CNN poll found the percent of
Americans who think their own Congressman deserves
reelection is at an all time low.
Not letting congressional approval sink too low is
critical for the country and our ability to address
future problems. If support falls much further,
faith in the legitimacy of the entire system could
Is there an answer?
Some lawmakers propose a novel solution, one that
flies in the face of conventional power perceptions
about Washington politicians. Borrowing from the
tradition of "servant leadership," this approach
holds some promise for boosting Congress's sagging
Throughout the centuries this idea has animated
discussions of how to lead. Many say a 1970 essay
by Robert K. Greenleaf, "The Servant as Leader,"
first applied the idea to the management of large
But until recently, the notion of "servant leadership"
seemed foreign to Congress. Politicians are
cold-blooded narcissists, not other-directed
helpers. Candidates promote themselves - not us.
They accumulate power and cut deals. That's how they
The perception of Congress as self-seeking, self-
interested, and self-promoting shakes voters'
confidence in the institution.
Some House Republican members want to change that
opinion. Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio
meets with his staff annually to hammer out
a set of goals and objectives for the year. They
produce a detailed vision statement that guides
their work as a team for the legislative session.
This year they added the goal of "servant leadership"
as an objective. Boehner and his staff urged all
House Republicans to adopt this model as an approach
to working with their constituents and colleagues in
Congress. It's an attitudinal shift with major
Dave Schnittger, Boehner's deputy chief of staff for
communications told me this in an email last week:
"Servant leadership is the antithesis of the arrogance
Americans have seen from a Democratic-controlled
Washington that has repeatedly defied the will of the
people on the biggest issues facing our country,"
Schnittger wrote. "It requires humility; a willingness
to listen; and recognition that the American people are
the ones in charge. Americans have a right to expect
their elected leaders to project this kind of attitude.
And this year they're demanding it."
Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, chairman of the House
Republican Conference agrees. Walking into the offices
of the GOP Conference in the Longworth House Office
Building, the words "servant leadership" appear on the
wall as part of the House Republicans' core objectives.
Boehner and Pence are on to something. Voters want a
Congress that works for the people, not just for
political elites. Yet the lexicon of Washington
doesn't put lawmakers in that role. The crafting of
legislation includes powerbrokers, influence peddlers
and self-interested politicians, not servant leaders.
Hearing lawmakers talk about this new vision is
simultaneously jarring, refreshing and healing --
an ice-pack on the inflammation of public discontent.