Congress Approval Ratings Through History

Why Americans Hate Congress But Keep Electing Their Congressman

House of Representatives
Members of Congress usually have no trouble getting re-election despite historically low approval ratings. Mark Wilson/Getty Images News

The approval rating for Congress is abysmally low, and most Americans say they have almost zero faith it can solve our most important problems and view its leaders with severe contempt. But they also keep re-electing the same people to represent them in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives year after year.

How can that be?

How can an institution be more unpopular than Satan, feel pressure from Americans to set term limits for themselves yet see 90 percent of its incumbents be re-elected?

 

Are voters confused? Fickle? Or just unpredictable? And why are approval ratings for Congress so low?

Congress Approval Ratings

It's no secret that Americans loathe Congress the institution. A majority of voters routinely tell pollsters they don't believe most members of the House and Senate deserve to be re-elected. "Americans have held the nation's legislative branch in low regard for years now," the public-opinion firm Gallup wrote in 2013. 

In early 2014, the portion of people who said the nation's lawmakers should win re-election sunk to a low of 17 percent in Gallup's survey. The low approval rating followed congressional inaction over spending limits and an inability to reach compromise on a number of issues or avoid the government shutdown of 2013.

Gallup's historical average of Americans supporting re-election for members of Congress is 39 percent. 

And yet: Members of Congress have no trouble getting re-elected.

Incumbents Are Safe

Despite Congress' historically abysmal approval ratings, well over 90 percent of House and Senate members who seek re-election win their races on average, according to data published from the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C.

"Few things in life are more predictable than the chances of an incumbent member of the U.S. House of Representatives winning reelection," writes the Center for Responsive Politics.

 "With wide name recognition, and usually an insurmountable advantage in campaign cash, House incumbents typically have little trouble holding onto their seats."

The same goes for members of the Senate.

Why Our Lawmakers Keep Getting Re-Elected

There are several reasons lawmakers keep getting re-elected aside from their name recognition and typically well funded campaign coffers. One of the reasons is that it's easier to dislike an institution than it is a person, especially when that person is one of your neighbors. Americans can loathe the inability of the House and Senate to reach agreement on things like the national debt. But they find it more difficult to hold their lawmaker solely responsible.

The popular sentiment seems to be, as The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza once put it, "Throw the bums out. But not my bum."

Times Are Changing

That sentiment - Congress stinks but my representative is OK - seems to be fading, however. Pollsters at Gallup found in early 2014, for example, that a record-low portion of voters, 46 percent, said their own representative deserved re-election.

"The enduring unpopularity of Congress appears to have seeped into the nation's 435 congressional districts," Gallup wrote.

"While Congress as an institution is no stranger to voter disenchantment, American voters are usually more charitable in their assessments of their own representatives in the national legislature. But even this has fallen to a new trough."

Congress Approval Ratings Through History

Here's a look at the Gallup's organization's numbers by year. The approval ratings shown here are from the public opinion surveys conducted the latest in each year listed.

  • 2016: 18%
  • 2015: 13%
  • 2014: 16%
  • 2013: 12%
  • 2012: 18%
  • 2011: 11%
  • 2010: 13%
  • 2009: 25%
  • 2008: 20%
  • 2007: 22%
  • 2006: 21%
  • 2005: 29%
  • 2004: 41%
  • 2003: 43%
  • 2002: 50%
  • 2001: 72%
  • 2000: 56%
  • 1999: 37%
  • 1998: 42%
  • 1997: 39%
  • 1996: 34%
  • 1995: 30%
  • 1994: 23%
  • 1993: 24%
  • 1992: 18%
  • 1991: 40%
  • 1990: 26%
  • 1989: Not Available
  • 1988: 42%
  • 1987: 42%
  • 1986: 42%
  • 1985: Not Available
  • 1984: Not Available
  • 1983: 33%
  • 1982: 29%
  • 1981: 38%
  • 1980: 25%
  • 1979: 19%
  • 1978: 29%
  • 1977: 35%
  • 1976: 24%
  • 1975: 28%
  • 1974: 35%