Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Mediocre 'favorability' ratings hint at Utah's varied attitudes toward Congress

Last week, a UtahPolicy.com poll, which was picked up by other media, showed mediocre “favorability” ratings for Utah’s four U.S. House members. Your columnists weigh in.

Why the dismal ratings? Are Utahns really that upset with U.S. House members? Also, to many observers, the delegation — especially Rep. Jason Chaffetz — seems rather quiet. What is happening? 

Pignanelli: "We may not imagine how our lives could be more frustrating and complex — but Congress can." — Cullen Hightower

Enough time has passed since the last real scare so the boundaries of decency (rarely a barrier for this miscreant) now allow me to reinstate my frequent distasteful comparisons between the federal government and the Ebola virus. Polls continue to document that by large margins Americans are more fearful of Washington, D.C., than the African pestilence. The complaints — legitimate and otherwise — Utahns have with the feds is blemishing their view of our elected representatives. (Well, that's the best reason I have to explain the rough survey results.)

Regardless of ideologies, political insiders know that Utah's congressional delegation is actually quite busy with substantive matters. Furthermore, members are very aggressive in maintaining contact with constituents in their weekly trips home on the weekend. But any good works are filtered by the grumpiness towards all things federal.

Congressman Jason Chaffetz and Rob Bishop each serve as chairman of an important House committee, and must limit extracurricular activities with the media to allow their colleagues to shine. Bishop prefers such solitude, and the publicity-savvy Chaffetz is selective in his PR excursions.

Webb: The modest favorability ratings don’t indicate that Utah’s members of Congress are in political trouble. But they do show that many registered voters aren’t paying much attention, and Utah’s representatives need to communicate better with their constituents.

Favorability ratings are usually lower than job approval ratings. Favorability ratings seem to be partly about likability and personal connection. Many people rate a politician low on favorability but higher on job approval.

The high number of respondents who had no opinion or hadn’t heard of the politician shows members of Congress need to communicate better with voters. They send out a lot of mail, do town hall meetings and try to get the news media to pay attention. But in the digital age with thousands of images and messages bombarding citizens every day, politicians must work harder to cut through the clutter.

That means working on issues their constituents care about and monitor, providing great constituent service, and effectively using social media.

Does this poll indicate re-election vulnerabilities for the House members?

Pignanelli: Utahns eject an incumbent member of Congress every 8-10 years (or so). History will be haunting one of them in the next several election cycles. In the past, the best defense against such threats was a strong support within party delegates. But with the changes to nomination system through SB54, officeholders will now have to adjust such tactics to keep the more moderate primary voters happy.

Webb: All four of Utah’s members of Congress are in pretty good shape. They are clear favorites for re-election — unless someone very well-known with a lot of money challenges them. The best thing they can do is show they are solving the nation’s problems, not just throwing bombs and criticizing the federal government. After all, they’re in charge now. It’s their responsibility to make the federal government work.

Is Congress getting more done under Republican leadership?

Pignanelli: Congress has been in session for only a handful of weeks in 2015, but there are signs of rational thought (confirmation of Attorney General Loretta Lynch, likely passage of the trade bill). The GOP made loads of promises in 2014 to capture the Senate, and will be expected to pass tax and immigration reform, some relief of Dodd Frank, revamps to Obamacare and streamline of entitlements. It is an ambitious agenda. The master of bipartisanship solutions, Sen. Orrin Hatch, is well placed as Senate Finance chairman to shepherd these legislative packages through the Capitol. If he cannot, then we are in real trouble and Ebola will look even more attractive.

Webb: If the Republicans aren’t careful, they’re going to ruin Congress’ reputation as gridlocked and dysfunctional. In a relatively short time, Congress has accomplished a great deal and has shown it can solve problems. Even President Obama seems more willing to compromise and work with Congress on some issues. Sen. Hatch has been particularly effective. “Regular order” is being restored. Bills from both parties are being debated. The House and Senate are working together.

Certainly, not all is well in Washington. Too much power is concentrated there. It’s impossible for Washington to solve all of our problems. Congress faces many difficult issues and certainly won’t conquer all of them. Dysfunction still reigns in many ways. But under GOP leadership, Congress is finally working hard and making progress.