Will the supercommittee stalemate sink Congress?

Congress' approval rating is at an all-time low. CBS/AP

supercommittee
CBS/AP

Is anyone surprised the supercommittee failed?

Like the Redskins, Congress has become a Washington institution that has repeatedly let its constituents down -- and polls suggest people saw the stalemate over budget cuts coming. The 12-member, bipartisan panel's failure to find $1.2 trillion in budget savings may not mean much to skeptical voters already giving Congress historically low approval ratings.

Still, after a year filled with congressional dysfunction, this latest defeat may leave voters itching to shake up the management on Capitol Hill once again -- meaning all incumbents, but House Republicans in particular, should have cause for concern. Furthermore, as the 2012 election cycle kicks into high gear, voters can have little hope Democrats and Republicans will start playing more like a team.

Since October, Congress' approval rating has sat at 9 percent -- a record low in the CBS News poll. So it may come as no surprise that when asked about the supercommittee's prospects, most voters surveyed in the past week expected it to fail.

In a McClatchy/ Marist survey conducted November 8 - 10, only 13 percent of voters said they were confident the committee would reach a deal. A Quinnipiac poll released Monday similarly showed 69 percent of voters expected the committee to fail.

The 12-member panel -- made up of three House Democrats, three House Republicans, three Senate Democrats and three Senate Republicans -- was born out of the deal Congress reached over the summer to raise the debt ceiling. The committee's failure to come up with a budget savings plan is supposed to trigger automatic, across-the-board cuts totaling $1.2 trillion over 10 years, but conservatives are already trying to prevent the billions in cuts to the Pentagon.

While the skepticism surrounding the committee was heavy, it's important to take a step back and realize most voters weren't even paying attention. A Politico battleground poll conducted earlier this month found that 50 percent of voters said they were "not at all" familiar with the supercommittee.

According to Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, in voters' minds the only "committee" responsible for managing the federal budget "was called Congress."

The existence -- and the failure -- of the supercommittee "just reinforces the notion that Washington is getting nothing done," she told Hotsheet. Lake's firm Lake Research Firm helped conduct the Politico poll.

But a dissatisfaction with Congress doesn't always mean that voters are unhappy with their particular representatives. The Politico poll found that 46 percent of voters said they approved of their representative.

At the end of the day, people in their districts, for the most part, hold their congressman in a higher regard than 9 percent or at least have higher expectations from them from a leadership standpoint," said Trey Hardin, a Republican strategist and senior vice president at the communications firm VOX Global

Still, Doug Thornell, a Democratic strategist at SKDKnickerbocker, points out that the supercommittee stalemate is just one in a series of events this year illustrating the profound gridlock in Congress -- and wearing voter patience to paper-thin levels.

"Normally, you could count on one of those types of significant events occurring that really tests the public's trust in Congress," he said. "But with one after another, it's going to be hard to recover. If you're an incumbent, you really need to worry about that -- we've seen an electorate over the last three cycles that is very finicky."

A look back at the calendar proves his point: A full 24 percent of voters approved of Congress in a February CBS News poll -- not long after the so-called "gang of six" bipartisan senators began budget negotiations.

But by April -- after Congress came to the brink of a government shutdown -- the CBS News poll showed Congress' approval rating down to 16 percent. By the late summer, the "gang of six" proved to be a dud, as did negotiations led by Vice President Joe Biden, and Mr. Obama's attempt to strike a "grand bargain" with House Speaker John Boehner.

All of those moments -- plus continued, divisive debates on other issues -- have culminated in Congress' 9 percent approval rating, according to CBS News director of surveys Sarah Dutton.

"Repeatedly, our polls have found that whether it's the debate over health care reform, the federal budget or the debt ceiling, more than three in four Americans have wanted to see both sides in Congress compromise to get something done rather than stick to their positions," Dutton said. "Americans are deeply worried about the economy and jobs, and they have had those worries for years now with little relief in sight."

Thornell contends that ultimately most culpability will fall on House Republicans.

"The public face of Congress, for good or bad, has been House Republicans and those new Tea Party members," the Democratic strategist said. "The ironic thing for Republicans is they spent 2010 talking about how dysfunctional Washington and Congress was, and they've gotten to power and demonstrated it."

It may be hard for the GOP to lose its strong majority in the House, but there are 60 Republican freshman who may be particularly at risk, given they represent districts that supported Mr. Obama in 2008.

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Both the Marist poll and the Quinnipiac poll showed that voters placed more blame on Republicans than Democrats by about a 10-point margin. And in the Marist poll, even half of Republicans said they disapprove of the job Republicans are doing in Congress. That figure rises to 54 percent among Tea Party supporters.

It may seem like Congress' approval rating couldn't fall any further, but without some action to spur job growth, it may happen, Lake contends -- particularly in this time of year. Surveys show people typically feel the worst about the economy in January, she said.

"You've got two really tough months ahead," Lake, the Democratic pollster, said. "People are going to feel very disgruntled about how bad the economy is while they're trying to celebrate their holidays."

And now that the supercommittee has failed, Congress is left with a daunting to-do list to complete before the end of the year to save people some grief -- it includes extending unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed and extending the payroll tax cut.

Those items may or may not get accomplished, but Hardin, the GOP strategist, points out that voters can expect to see even less cooperation in Congress as the election season gets underway. By November 2012, the supercommittee stalemate may be another distant memory at the bottom of a long list of congressional failures.

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