Congress needs another Watergate to boost popularity

Sen. Sam Ervin opens the Watergate hearings in 1973.

Last week Gallup estimated that 14 percent of Americans approve of the way Congress does its job. That’s lower than in any final campaign poll Gallup has published since it began asking the question in 1974. The lack of confidence in our representatives is often cited as a reason for the low interest in this year’s midterm elections. If Americans were truly angry at Congress, a desire for change might rev up turnout, but the hope for improvement seems to be at the level of someone whose job is to ping messages to outer space in case there’s some intelligent life to answer them. You can understand wanting to stay home instead.

The approval rating is not going to improve in the next two weeks, for campaign season is when members of Congress are at their worst. In their challengers’ ads, they come off as kitten stranglers. In their own ads, they come of as hucksters, with all the sincerity of telemarketers trying to sell you overdraft protection for your bank account because they want to save you money.

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Forty years ago, just after the Watergate scandal and Richard Nixon’s resignation from the presidency, cynicism about American politics was more than justified, but approval of Congress was at a not-as-horrible 35 percent. (The highest approval rating just before a midterm election was 50 percent in 2002, when political institutions in general were still getting high marks in reaction to the terrorist attacks of 9/11.) But in August 1974, before the corrosive effects of pleas for re-election, approval of Congress was an almost balmy 47 percent. This was certainly due to the Watergate hearings, during which Congress acted as an investigative body instead of an echo chamber of self-interest.

The hearings of the Senate Watergate Committee in 1973, followed the next year by the House Judiciary hearings on the possible impeachment of Nixon, riveted the nation (and it was hard to escape news coverage in a three-network television universe). The proceedings made stars out of folksy Sen. Sam Ervin, a Democrat, and the more direct Sen. Howard Baker (“What did the president know, and when did he know it?”), a Republican. They included one of the most celebrated speeches in congressional history, by Rep. Barbara Jordan of Texas, on her intent to uphold a constitution whose original form didn’t recognize her as a full human being.

Americaeditorialized on the nationwide civics lesson in its year-end issue: “In July, television turned its merciless eye on the impeachment hearings of the House Judiciary Committee, and, by and large, a nation in danger of total cynicism was encouraged by what it saw, as the committee members pursued a distasteful task with responsibility and a minimum of politics.” Less optimistic was a later passage in the editorial: “The influence of corporate wealth on political process, one of the original sources of the Watergate corruption, poses a challenge that the U.S. Congress seems unwilling to face.” (For a look at some of the more fascinating characters in the Watergate drama, see Raymond A. Schroth’s “Three Jesuits and the Downfall of a President” from the June 23 issue of America.)

There have been a few times since Watergate when Congress held our attention instead of repelling it—including the Iran-Contra hearings, the debates over going to war with Iraq in both 1991 and 2002, and the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominees including Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas. Rarely have debates over legislation proved interesting, since most of the work is done behind closed doors and floor speeches are generally made for the benefit of contributors and interest groups.

A few members of Congress acquire fans by demonstrating the ability to make a coherent speech longer than the two-minute closing statement at a debate. Kentucky Republican Rand Paul raised his profile with a 13-hour long filibuster in 2013 forcing the Obama administration to clarify its policy on using armed drones against suspected terrorists. In 2010, Vermont independent Bernie Sanders delivered a marathon speech in opposition to extending Bush administration tax cuts, making him a folk hero to people concerned about economic inequality. Stemwinder speeches were popular in the 19th century, when there was little else to entertain people, but it turns out they can still find an audience in the YouTube era.

This weekend the Washington Monthly’s Ten Miles Square blog had a post by Martin Longman looking back at the Nixon administration and its aftermath:

The great triumph of the era was that America rose up and demanded that reality match the myth we were taught in our public schools. Congress enacted the FISA law, gave teeth to the Freedom of Information Act, passed campaign finance reform laws, created intelligence oversight committees, passed the Sunshine Act, the Ethics in Government Act, and the Presidential Records Act. Our country’s dirty laundry was fairly thoroughly aired through multiple congressional investigations, and the media became more combative and confrontational.
 

There’s plenty of dirty laundry in America today, but Congress is more adept at fear-mongering (see: the Ebola virus) than at substantive debate. We don’t necessarily need another Watergate to change that. Congress certainly has the power to conduct investigations of things like long-term unemployment, high incarceration rates and bureaucratic tangles in health care, even when there’s not a specific piece of legislation on the table. That’s not going to happen in 2014, but it could push approval ratings up before the next time we have to wonder how many people will bother to vote.

Image from "A Look Back at the Senate Watergate Hearings," posted to YouTube by the PBS NewsHour.

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