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Unloved for so long, Congress not fazed by public's disapproval

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House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Speaker of the House John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell speak to the media at the White House on Nov. 16, 2012.

Four months ago, the United States Congress had a gloomy approval rating of just 12 percent. And that was before most Americans had ever heard of a "fiscal cliff." 

The last NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll to measure congressional approval (August), showed that a whopping 82 percent of Americans disapproved of the job Congress was doing, an all-time record for the history of the survey.

By some estimates, Congress' approval rating could now -- after an ugly fiscal cliff fight and the brewing storm over aid to Hurricane Sandy victims -- be nearly within the margin of, well, zilch. 

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So is Congress doomed to forever be the branch of government eating alone in the proverbial cafeteria of public opinion? And can it go any lower?

For the last four years, no more than one-in-three adults has given Congress a thumbs up, according to the poll. And it's been longer than a decade since more than half of Americans approved of their representative government on Capitol Hill.

After intense pressure, the House vote on some emergency aid for areas hardest hit by Hurricane Sandy will be held on Friday. NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports.

Experts say that because the ratings have been so poor for so long, members are no longer fazed by the public's overall disapproval. They note that the lambasting of Congress as a whole has minimal effects on individual races, especially when candidates run against the status quo of the very body they're trying to join.

Some 90 percent of lawmakers who ran for re-election in 2012 will be coming right back to Capitol Hill for the 113th Congress. 

"Nobody ever votes on Congress as a whole, they vote on individual members," says Jack Pitney, professor at Claremont McKenna College in California. "The message that most lawmakers give their constituents is 'I'm great, it's these other bozos who are the problem.'"

For the most part, that pitch works.

'Everybody has something to hate'
In the August NBC/WSJ poll, even though only about one-in-ten Americans approved of Congress, four times as many said that their own representatives deserved re-election.

Apart from keeping the same lawmakers they seem bent on throwing out, the public has also sent mixed signals on whether or not it wants a government divided between two parties.

For more than 20 of the last 30 years, the White House has been controlled by a different party than one or both houses of Congress.

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With Congress frequently butting heads with the president -- particularly on budgetary matters that could have real and unpleasant consequences for American taxpayers -- it's not easy for lawmakers to compete for a "Miss Congeniality" trophy.

"These fights, combined with difficult economic times, leave the public to understandably think very poorly of the Congress," says Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and the co-author of a recent book on political dysfunction.

"I don't think it's destined to always be that way, but when you have a war going on between the two major parties, not just during campaign season but throughout the governing season, then it's not surprising for Congress to get these kind of ratings," Mann said. 

House Republicans are under the public microscope after apparently delaying action on a Hurricane Sandy relief package.

Making matters worse for Congress: the issues at stake often involve spending cuts and federal program changes likely to affect voters directly -- many of them negatively.

"We have an enormous deficit and the only steps that we can take to reduce the deficit are painful and unpopular," says Pitney. "Plus, you have split party control, so everybody has something to hate."

Public wants unity
In a model divided government, the Congress would serve -- at least in principle -- to cancel the most partisan priorities from the executive branch in favor of centrist ideals.

But with that rosy idea of balance often replaced by inaction and gridlock, polling suggests that the country may be shifting toward a preference for unity.

A recent Gallup survey showed that the number of Americans who said they want to see divided government is at record lows, with just 23 percent favoring a president and a Congress from different parties.

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That's a finding that Brock McCleary, the former deputy executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee and founder of the survey firm Harper Polling, has seen replicated in polls throughout various House districts.

"Our assumption was voters would want one branch of government as a nice check and balance on the other one and think that as long as everyone's tapping the brakes on one another it's probably better for the country," he said. "But we would go and look at polling and find that wasn't actually the case. Very few people were telling pollsters that's what they wanted."

But, McCleary added, that sentiment didn't translate into change in the two most recent elections in 2010 and 2012, which resulted in a Republican House despite a fairly decisive re-election for a Democratic president.

Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., joins Chris Cillizza to talk about Tuesday night's fiscal cliff negotiations and how the House closed session on a sour note.

"There's a disconnect there," he said.

With divided government in place for at least the next two years, and with the vast majority up for re-election likely to return each year -- Congress's best hope may ultimately depend on the economy that each party aims to improve. But in the immediate future, those prospects look bleak.

"People generally need to feel as though the country is back on the right track," said McCleary. "Until that turns around it, sliding approval numbers are a fact of life for American politicians."