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 Politics.
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
'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 collapse.
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
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 institutions.
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 get elected.
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
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.