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Wednesday
Dec212011

The Most Disparaged Profession

Congress is the ideal American institution: it spends far more than it takes in and borrows the difference. We love that. To heck with the future. It means free money, services, wars, and other goodies. At least some of us get to profit from it. And then we blow it or invest it, and lose it or make money on it. It all adds up to that glorious GDP. It’s the American dream.

Lawmakers are so efficient at it that 36% of every dollar in the budget has to be borrowed.... Oh wait. They don’t do budgets anymore. They’re uncool. They do continuing resolutions. Given this bottomless largesse, mathematically speaking, it’s logical that Congress would have sky-high approval rating. Wait.... Oh no!

Only 11% of the people approve of the Herculean job lawmakers are doing, according to Gallup, which has a knack for peeking at our innermost feelings. It’s the lowest score since Gallup started tracking it in 1974.

How can that be? Didn't we just learn that it's a virtuous activity for lawmakers to give out privileged information on pending legislation? Profiting from opportunity is an American principle we cherish. So, a few hedge funds were given tradable information about compromises in the healthcare law just before the announcement on December 8, 2009. According to the Wall Street Journal:

They belong to a select group who pay for early, firsthand reports on Capitol Hill. Seeking advance word of government decisions is part of a growing, lucrative—and legal—practice in Washington that employs a network of brokers, lobbyists and political insiders.

Insider trading by lawmakers and staff is an honorable practice as well. It’s perfectly legal and part and partial of their wealth aggregation package, according to 60 Minutes. So how can it be that a record 86% of the people disapprove of the fine job Congress is doing?

And more importantly, who are the stalwarts who approve of the job Congress is doing? Gallup has the answer:

  • 7% of independents. That’s good news; it’s above zero. Zero would have been embarrassing. And even with the survey’s margin of error of ±4%, it remains above zero
  • 12% of Republicans
  • 14% of Democrats (they’ve got some ‘splainin to do)

It all boils down to honesty and ethical standards, which lawmakers have to check at the door when they enter the profession. According to another Gallup poll, a record 64% of respondents rated lawmakers very low or low on honesty and ethical standards. That’s the worst score ever for lawmakers and matches the prior record awarded to lobbyists in 2008. Together, lawmakers and lobbyists are the “most disparaged professions” in the history of Gallup’s surveys. In the last poll, lobbyists were second, with 62%, followed by telemarketers with 53%, and by car salespeople with a practically stellar 47%.

It has been a vertiginous decline from the peak in 2001, when 25% rated Congress very low or low on honesty and ethical standards. Back then—coincidentally or not—budget deficits were under control, and gross national debt was “only” $5.7 trillion. Since then, with every additional trillion in debt, respect for Congress has been shrinking. The current gross national debt of $15.1 trillion will likely hit $16.4 trillion by next December, and if that trajectory continues for a few more years, approval ratings for Congress might actually hit zero ±4%. Which would be a blast.

The irony is that we the people hired them—and as long as our personal lawmakers bring home the bacon, we’ll vote for them again, though we scream and holler about the other scoundrels in Congress. And bringing home the bacon is what the congressional chef d’œuvre, the tax code, is all about—just when corporate tax dodging puts the finger on its Strenuously Hushed-Up Basic Flaw.

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