Republicans may have just executed a historical midterm coup, but the American people are still skeptical about the new Congress’ ability to rebuild trust with the American people.

The 113th Congress was famously divided—and famously unpopular. It ended 2014 with its approval rating bottomed out at 16%. A new poll conducted by Gallup at the very start of the 114th Congress shows that not much has changed: only 16% of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing, and a sky-high 76% of Americans disapprove of a body that has been at work for less than a month.

This, of course, says less about faith in individual members, and more about how Americans feel in general about the way Washington has played politics over the past few years. The average American finds no enjoyment or catharsis in ugly floor fights and media battles, and the poll numbers reflect this disconnect between the glass-walled terrarium that is Washington politics, and the rest of the country.

Still, data from previous sessions shows that this Congress still has an opportunity to redeem itself with its skeptical electorate.

Gallup explains:

Congress’ poor track record notwithstanding, there is reason to believe this Congress will at least be rated more popularly going forward than the last two divided Congresses. Typically, elections that hand control of Congress to one party provide an initial uptick in support for the new Congress. For instance, when Democrats took control of both houses in 2007, that Congress began its tenure with a job approval rating 14 percentage points higher than the previous Congress. Likewise, after the historic 1994 midterm elections put Republicans in charge of both houses for the first time in 40 years, Congress began its work with a 10-point bump in its approval rating.

Even in 2011, when Republicans assumed control of the House but not the Senate — Congress temporarily saw its approval spike by seven points.

Only in 2003 did a new partisan makeup of Congress not translate into higher approval; interestingly, then, as now, Republicans won the Senate in the previous election and retained their House majority to earn the right to govern Capitol Hill exclusively. A crucial difference, though, is the 2003-2005 Congress began its tenure with a 49% approval rating — above the historical norm, and well above where the 114th Congress currently stands.

The 114th Congress hasn’t had time to settle in yet—and neither have the American people. The past two years have given us a history of infighting not only between parties, but between members of a GOP caucus filled with both seasoned leaders and ambitious newcomers.

If you take a random sampling of 800 adults, as Gallup did, you’ll probably find that not all of them are as involved in politics as the average blogger or activist. Maybe less than half. But most people, involved or not, can identify an unhappy family when they see one, and that’s not a situation they either approve of, or want to be a part of.

The members of the 114th Congress can salvage their collective reputation, and their approval rating, but it’s going to take a lot more than simply winning an election to get that ball rolling.


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