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By Michael Collins April 19, 2012

Democratic Congressman Jim Cooper says Congress’ approval at historic low

With the economy still in recovery, an election on the horizon and Congress stuck in what seems like a perpetual state of gridlock, suffice it to say that voters are fed up with politicians and how the federal government is being run.

U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville, reflected on Congress’ unpopularity in a recent op-ed article and compared the legislative branch to a sick patient in dire need of strong medicine.

"Congress as a whole is less popular than it’s been since polling was invented," Cooper wrote in The Hill, a newspaper that closely chronicles what’s happening in Congress.

We knew these have not been the best of times to be a federal officeholder. But we wondered if Cooper is right that Congress is more unpopular than ever before, so we called his office and asked for his sources.

His spokeswoman, Katie Hill, said in an email message that the information came from media reports about Gallup polling on congressional job approval. She provided us with links to the Gallup poll and to related articles in The Washington Post and The Hill.

Since Cooper argued that Congress is the most unpopular it has been since polling was invented, a bit of history is in order.

Gallup founder George Gallup is often credited with developing the first scientific methods of measuring public opinion. Gallup was not the first person to do political polling.

According to PBS, newspapers often augmented their election coverage by interviewing voters as they left the polling places. These impromptu interviews were called "straw polls," and the first one recorded in the United States took place in 1824. By the turn of the century, they were common in both local and national newspapers and magazines.

Gallup was among the first practitioners of scientific polling. The Gallup Organization and its predecessor, the American Institute of Public Opinion, have been asking Americans for their thoughts on political and economic matters since 1935. It wasn’t until 1974, however, that Gallup began asking Americans if they approve of the job Congress is doing.

The Gallup poll that Cooper was referencing was conducted Feb. 2-5, 2012, about two weeks after President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address and the reconvening of the House and the Senate.

The poll found that just 10 percent of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing, the legislative body’s lowest rating ever. The previous all-time low was recorded in December 2011, when just 11 percent of Americans approved of the way Congress was handling its job. Other polls have shown similar results.

A CBS News/New York Times poll conducted just a few days after the Gallup survey -- on Feb. 8-13, 2012 --  put Congress’ approval rating at 10 percent, a near-record low. The all-time low was recorded just a few months earlier, when Congress received a 9 percent approval rating in October 2011. That was the lowest rating recorded since the poll first asked the question in 1977.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted on Jan. 12-15, 2012, found that just 13 percent of Americans approve of the way Congress is handling its job. The pollsters said it was Congress’ worst rating ever in the survey.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted on Jan. 22-24 also put Congress approval rating at 13 percent, just one point higher than the all-time low in that poll. The all-time low was 12 percent and was recorded back in 2008.

Our ruling

At least four recent polls put Congress’ approval rating at record or near-record lows. Even in those cases where the most recent approval rating is not the lowest on record, the difference between the most recent and the lowest ratings is just 1 percentage point. Thus, Cooper’s statement turns the dial to True on the Truth-o-Meter.

Our Sources

Rep. Jim Cooper, The Hill’s Congressional Blog, Congress is in need of strong medicine, March 20, 2012

Katie Hill, spokeswoman for Rep. Jim Cooper, in an email to PolitiFact on April 10, 2012

Gallup, Congress’ Job Approval at New Low of 10 percent, Feb. 8, 2012

Aaron Blake, The Washington Post, Congress finds a new home in the doghouse, Feb. 9, 2012

Jonathan Easley, The Hill’s Blog Briefing Room, Congress’s job-approval rating hits all-time low in new Gallup survey, Feb. 8, 2012

Gallup web site, George Gallup, 1901-1984: Founder, The Gallup Organization,  April 2012

PBS, History of Opinion Polling, June 14, 2002

CBS News/New York Times Poll, a survey conducted on Feb. 8-13, 2012

ABC News/Washington Post Poll, Congress Hits a New Low in Approval; Obama Opens Election Year Under 50 Percent, Jan. 16, 2012

NBC News/Wall Street Journal Survey, a poll conducted on Jan. 22-24, 2012

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

More by Michael Collins

Democratic Congressman Jim Cooper says Congress’ approval at historic low

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