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Originally published Wednesday, November 30, 2011 at 4:49 PM

Joni Balter / Seattle Times editorial columnist

Will low approval ratings for Congress mean a shake-up in state's delegation?

Approval ratings for the 112th Congress are lowest in polling history. Why, then, does it seem like all incumbents in our state delegation will be re-elected in 2012?

Seattle Times editorial columnist

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For months, pollsters have been ringing the alarm bell — or more like sounding a funeral dirge. The 112th Congress has the lowest approval ratings on record. The percentage of people approving of its work hovers between 9 and 12 percent.

There is nothing funny about the dysfunction gripping the nation's capital. But Arizona Sen. John McCain could not resist a hiccup of humor: "We're down to paid staffers and blood relatives," he tweeted.

Why, then, when you look at a map of Washington and ponder 2012 congressional campaigns, including a U.S. Senate race, do you sense that all that disapproval likely will not result in the unseating of a single member of our delegation?

I could be wrong. Redistricting is under way. Geographical lines could change things. For certain, there will be a new 10th District sending a fresh face to Congress. Congressman Jay Inslee will vacate his 1st District seat to run for governor. So there are two spots of opportunity.

But redistricting usually preserves or enhances an incumbent's safety in a given district, widening the long-standing disconnect between a voter's impression of his or her member of Congress and that same voter's view of Congress as a whole.

Congress may seem like a shapeless blob, as state Republican Party Chairman Kirby Wilbur aptly put it, but voters feel they sort of know individual members.

"We get bombarded with so much news about how Congress is fighting and failing to compromise, but we rarely get any news about our specific members of Congress as being part of the problem," said Matt Barreto, associate professor of political science at the University of Washington.

A nonpartisan Washington Poll, led by Barreto, reaffirms the discrepancy. For example, only 14 percent of Washington voters in October approved of Congress. But those same voters, by a margin of 53 percent, like Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell, who is seeking a third term in 2012.

"Individual members of Congress devote considerable time to constituent services, funding for local projects and ribbon-cutting events at new parks, so the general impression is that your individual member of Congress is fine, but the institution of Congress is not working," said Barreto.

This is similar to the way people might negatively view teachers unions, but at the same time — and not irrationally — adore their child's teachers.

Think about this for a minute. All four Republican members of Congress in our state signed the absurd Grover Norquist pledge to never raise taxes under any circumstances, even if it means harming the country. Signees include U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, from the sophisticated Eastside. Reichert has more fealty to a lobbyist than a sensible deficit-reduction strategy of higher taxes and greatly reduced spending.

Same goes for Cathy McMorris Rogers of Eastern Washington, Jaime Herrera Beutler from Southwest Washington and Doc Hastings, he of the lousy idea to renew the fight about drilling for oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

On the Democratic side, Congressman-for-life-or-therabouts Jim McDermott is so robotically liberal it is difficult to consider him a serious problem solver. No matter. Seattle's 7th District will send him back until he takes himself out.

Washington voters occasionally toss out political lions — former House Speaker Tom Foley of Spokane, former Sen. Warren Magnuson and former Sen. Slade Gorton were among the casualties.

But only rarely do we eliminate these folks en masse. In 1994, during the Republican revolution, our delegation flipped dramatically from eight Democrats and one Republican to seven Republicans and two Democrats, one of the biggest turnarounds in the country.

It's a long-standing tradition to whine about Congress. Humorist Will Rogers wrote a letter to The New York Times in 1930, saying, "This country has come to feel the same when Congress is in session as when the baby gets hold of a hammer."

If ever there were a time to throw them out, 2012 is the moment when the institution of Congress will seem as appealing as a three-day dead rat in the basement. But I bet we won't do it. Our fault or theirs?

Joni Balter's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is jbalter@seattletimes.com




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