Explaining the Puzzle of Congressional Popularity
There is a seeming paradox in the fact that the US Congress is extremely unpopular (its current approval rating is 17%), while most individual members of Congress are reasonably popular (approval ratings more in the 50% range, with incumbents extremely likely to be re-elected). People like each of the parts but hate the whole.
The simplest way to resolve this paradox is to say that people are irrational, and as an economist I am ashamed to say that this was always my reaction when I heard these facts. But there is a good reason for the usual economist’s assumption of rationality: saying people are irrational often serves as a curiosity-stopper. You see something puzzling, but you just say that people are weird and dumb and you can stop thinking about it. But often it doesn’t take much more thinking to realize how people could be rational after all. Here are some possibilities in this case:
1. Different congressional districts have voters with different political beliefs. Congresspeople should usually have beliefs closer to their own district than someone representing another district would. Voters in Philadelphia should like their representative better than Congress as a whole because their rep is liberal while Congress is moderate.
2. An important specific case of (1) is that people know their representative is trying to bring them pork, while literally no other person in Congress is doing so; in fact the other Congresspeople are all trying to redirect pork away from my district and towards their own.
3. Congresspeople campaign and advertise heavily in their own districts, but very little in other districts. Congress as a whole does essentially no advertising (except, I suppose, putting up signs beside ARRA projects).
4. We may simply like individuals more than groups; perhaps you could call this a kind of irrationality. Certainly people dislike “corporations” but like almost every individual corporation. Then again, some things probably poll better collectively- the military, the Supreme Court. This is an interesting question in its own right.
I wonder if political science papers have succeeded in determining the importance of each explanation (and what other explanations they have advanced). One could get data on political beliefs of politicians and their districts to see how unpopular diverging from your district makes you (or see if congress as a whole is more popular in more moderate districts). You could examine how much popularity congresspeople get from bring more pork home (or being seen trying to do so). You could get at the individual-vs-group question by asking people what they think of specific congresspeople in other districts.