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U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., share a laugh during a discussion at Wake Forest University on Nov. 11 in Winston-Salem.

“According to a recent poll, the approval rating for members of Congress is 20%. Do you care to comment?”

Kami Chavis, professor of law and director of the Wake Forest Criminal Justice Program, posed the question to Sens. Richard Burr (R-NC) and Mark Warner (D-VA), who were on the Wake Forest University campus Nov. 11 for the inaugural event presented by the Burr Center for Legislative Studies.

“We’ve earned it,” Warner replied. “Frankly, I thought it was 9%.”

I don’t know which poll Chavis cited, but Warner’s estimate was closer to the Gallup poll of January 2019, which asked respondents to rate members of various professions on honesty and ethics. For the 17th consecutive year, nurses topped the list — 84% of respondents gave them a grade of high or very high. Bringing up the rear — well, tied with car salesmen for bringing up the rear — were the men and women we send to Washington to govern the country. Only 8% of the respondents rated them high or very high in terms of basic honesty and ethical standards; that’s 1% below telemarketers.

In a similar poll in June, only 11% of respondents said that they have a “great deal” of confidence or “quite a lot” of confidence in our senators and representatives.

In a list of 17 institutions, Congress came in dead last, behind TV news (18%), internet news (16%), and HMOs (19%).

The performance of some of our congressmen in the recent impeachment hearings did nothing to boost our confidence in them. The two dozen or so GOP lawmakers who forced their way into the SCIF — Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility — where the House Intelligence Committee was deposing a Pentagon official on U.S. policy in Ukraine looked more like a bunch of college students sitting-in the dean’s office than dedicated public servants whose behavior commands respect. The sit-in lasted almost six hours and brought the work of the committee to a momentary halt. The next day, the committee went back to work as if nothing had happened, because as a matter of fact nothing had happened.

The silliness in the SCIF notwithstanding, the single-digit approval rating for legislators is bipartisan. We do not discriminate in our blanket disapproval of those who govern us from Washington.

In response to a 2016 poll, 64% of respondents said they believe that major donors have a “lot” of influence on how members of Congress vote on legislation and 55% said they believed that lobbyists had a lot of influence; only 14% said that the folks back home have similar clout in Washington. Respondents were equally cynical about legislators of both parties.

A case could be made that the low esteem in which we hold our legislators is simply part of a broader, deeper mistrust that is running through American society. Police, the military and small businesses are the only institutions that consistently receive strong approval ratings from the public.

There was a time when most of us trusted public schools (62%), banks (60%), the medical system (80%) and organized religion (68%). According to Gallup, that time was 1975. Since then, the confidence levels in those institutions have plummeted by roughly 50%.

But the lack of confidence or trust that Americans have in their lawmakers is especially troublesome.

Granted, a healthy dose of cynicism is not surprising. Americans have always viewed government with a suspicious eye. Henry David Thoreau said, “How does it become a man to behave towards the American government today? I answer, that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it.” In the last 55 years, Congress has managed to receive an approval rating of 50% or more only once (2001).

But when barely 10% of Americans have confidence in Congress — an all-time low — and even fewer believe that senators and representatives are exemplars of honesty and admirable ethics, and less than 15% believe that constituents have much of a say in the way their senators and representatives vote, that is hardly a sign of health in a representative democracy.

Even more disturbing, I see no indication that congressmen and women are particularly bothered by the fact that Americans hold them in such low regard.

Trust is a precious and fragile thing. Once lost it must be earned. When it has been lost again and again, it is replaced not by lack of trust, but by active mistrust. Which is where many Americans are vis a vis their legislators.

To paraphrase Mark Warner, Congress has earned it.

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Richard Groves is a former pastor of Wake Forest Baptist Church and former adjunct instructor at High Point University.

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