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Congressional approval and democratic accountability

Leo Linbeck III has a long piece describing why congress doesn't work and why that's bad for our democracy. Here's the part that I wanted to address:

It is ironic to recall that the Founders gave the power of the purse to the House of Representatives because, being more responsive to the people, it would protect their pocketbooks from the extravagances of the executive branch. For the first 100 years, it pretty much worked that way, with federal spending about 4 percent of GDP.

Today the House is a spending machine—it spends $10 billion each day and more than 25 percent of GDP. Money can’t buy love, but it can buy power: in November 2010, Congress had an approval rating of just 17 percent, while the re-election rate in the House was 86 percent.

This disconnect between approval and re-election rates is the clearest sign that the congressional accountability system is broken. But there are several underlying causes:

He goes on to make some decent points about the problems in congress. But I wanted to address the point about the disconnect between approval and reelection. Here's what I said late last year about congressional approval ratings:

But Congressional approval ratings are rarely very high. I think its important to keep that context in mind because I think it helps explain whey they are so pathetically low right now. Even if the economy was growing quickly and we were clearly on track almost half the country still wouldn't approve. Why? Because almost half the country is of the opposing party and they don't like to see members of Congress from the other party doing well. When you add that constant to the bad economic situation you are almost assured nearly every Republican will disapprove of Congress.

You also have a substantial number of people disliking almost everything the minority party is doing based on their partisanship. Democrats don't like the Republicans members of Congress because they think they are blocking Democrats from solving problems. Even during good times when a person's party is doing things they aren't going to like the minority party because they are still trying to block things.

Basically, I think when people are asked if they approve of Congress they are thinking of a few things: Is the economy doing well? Are we at war, and how well is it going? Is my party in power? Is the other party keeping them from passing things? And is my party doing enough to pass things? The reason Congressional approval ratings are so low is because people have a negative response to all of those questions.

I maintain that what really drives consistently low congressional approval ratings is partisanship and the state of the economy (and war when the economy is stable). I don't think it has much to do with spending, as Linbeck suggests. When voters complain about spending they are again mostly complaining about partisanship. They don't like it when money is spent by the other party and on people other than themselves or their interests.

And that's part of why they don't throw out incumbents. Their own representatives are usually pretty good at spending money on them. As he said, that's part of why the founders gave congress, and specifically the House, the power of the purse. And while people may not like what other members of congress spend money on, they can't really do anything about that. So I don't really see congressional approval ratings and spending as a % of GDP as a threat to democratic accountability, at least in and of themselves.

The other reasons he offers better explain the problem, particularly money's influence on campaigns and gerrymandering. I've only read one political science article on gerrymandering. So I won't claim any sort of complete knowledge of the field. But the study I read suggested that gerrymandering had the effect of creating more partisan districts. If that's the case, it would help explain the partisan nature of congress and why opinions across party lines are so split, and thus why congressional approval is low.

And the effects of money seem pretty well explained by now. But in short, money certainly seems to make it harder for voters to have their opinions heard when they don't give as much money to representatives. In fact, there is data that shows that congress votes more along the lines of the rich than it does the poor. And in terms of holding incumbents accountable, having a lot of money discourages challengers in both the primary and general elections.

Even if you make progress on some of these problems I think congress will continue to be unpopular because some level of partisanship will persist. What really needs to change, and what might be the toughest thing to accomplish, is to have a more active citizenry that is aggressive when holding their representatives accountable.