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Californians and Congress

Mark Baldassare October 6, 2015

The recent announcement of Speaker Boehner’s resignation comes at a time when national approval ratings of the US Congress are in the teens (14% in September Gallup Poll). With the early talk of majority leader Kevin McCarthy stepping into the Speaker position, what are Californians saying about the powerful federal institution that the congressman from Bakersfield is well-positioned to lead?

In the latest PPIC Statewide Survey, we asked Californians to rate eight state and federal elected leaders and legislative bodies—interviewing was completed just before Pope Francis’ speech to Congress and Speaker Boehner’s surprise announcement. California likely voters give their lowest approval by far to the US Congress. Just 17 percent say they approve of the way the US Congress is handling its job.

Surprisingly, there is overwhelming consensus about Congress even in this era of hyper-partisanship. In the recent PPIC Statewide Survey, California likely voters of different political stripes are united in their low approval of Congress. By contrast, other political figures in Washington elicit highly partisan responses—including President Obama, Senator Boxer, and Senator Feinstein. Remarkably, approval among Republican likely voters of President Obama (13%) and Senator Boxer (15%)—both Democrats—is about the same as approval of Congress (17%), while Republican approval of Senator Feinstein (27%) and Governor Brown (29%) is higher than approval of Congress. It’s also noteworthy that Republicans (36%) are less likely than Democrats (62%) and independents (50%) to approve of their own House representatives—this may be related to their low approval of a Congress controlled by their party.

The 53 members of the California House delegation may take some solace in the fact that Californians are much more approving of their own representatives to the US House than of the Congress as a whole. And California’s US senators have approval ratings around 50 percent. Still, the California State Legislature has recovered from several years of low approval ratings while the US Congress has not. Moreover, the members of the California congressional delegation are working in an institution that is mostly seen as not doing its job. This raises doubts about their political futures, especially given the top-two primary—which takes away the certainty that candidates from both major parties will appear on the November ballot—and more competitive elections through independent legislative redistricting.

Low approval ratings of the US Congress have been a consistent feature in PPIC Statewide Surveys throughout this decade. Approval ratings of Congress among California’s likely voters have been in the mid-teens each September since the Republicans (and Speaker Boehner) took control of the House in January 2011. Under Democratic control (and Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s leadership, beginning in January 2007), approval ratings were somewhat higher. This could be partly because the California electorate leans Democratic, but it is worth noting that approval ratings of Congress under Republican leadership 10 years ago were higher than they are today.

Clearly, low approval of Congress is a national phenomenon tied to intense media focus on legislative gridlock and government shutdowns. But Californians do have fundamental policy disagreements with the current Congress that also affect their views of its job performance. Specifically, the recent PPIC Statewide Survey finds that Californians are more likely than people nationwide to express support for immigration reform, abortion rights, and stricter gun laws. The actions of Congress in recent years are at odds with California public opinion in all three of these controversial policy domains.

In the California context, immigration reform stands out as a special case. Sixty-nine percent of California likely voters—compared to 60 percent of adults in a national ABC News/Washington Post Poll in July—say that undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States should be allowed to live and work here legally if they pay a fine and meet other requirements. Moreover, majorities of likely voters across party groups (83% Democrats, 66% independents, 51% Republicans) support a way for undocumented immigrants to stay in the US legally. Importantly, 68 percent of those likely voters disapprove of Congress want there to be a way for undocumented immigrants to stay in the US legally. And among likely voters who support a way for undocumented immigrants to state in the US legally, 77 percent disapprove of Congress.

The next Speaker will face the major challenge—critical to the nation’s future—of restoring public trust and confidence in Congress. Our poll sheds light on the need for Congress to show leadership in addressing the complex problem of immigration, which is surfacing early and often as the defining issue for the Republican presidential candidates. The view from California is that the path to higher approval of Congress runs through immigration reform. It won’t be easy, but there is a way forward for a new leader who seeks to improve perceptions of the way that the Congress handles its job.

News and analysis of California policy issues from PPIC

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