If used-car salesmen ran Congress

By Kate Dailey
BBC News Magazine


Suffering from incredibly low approval ratings, Congress is now less popular than cockroaches. We turn to some groups (slightly) more beloved by Americans for advice.

The 113th Congress has just begun, but already its lawmakers have their work cut out. Aside from big decisions looming on the budget, they are incredibly unpopular.

Just how unpopular are they? In a Public Policy Polling survey released this week, Congress was less popular than root canals, traffic jams, Brussels sprouts and other universal dislikes. People preferred head lice three times more than Congress, and almost twice as much as colonoscopies.

How can Congress improve its lot? We asked some groups that rated higher than Congress on the survey to give their advice.

Used car salesman (preferred 57-32) Car sales still suffer from past misdeeds. "Back in the day, people are getting ripped off on payment and interest rates. People who were leasing weren't told about the models and the penalties," says Frank Aparicio, internet and fleet manager at Puente Hills Subaru in California. "They all think we're liars, cheaters and thieves."

That sounds pretty similar to the American opinion of Congress. So how can they turn it around? "Customer service," says Aparicio. "Any customer service business, even our government, is supposed to be there for the people to find out what the problem is and get to the end goal - in car sales, it would be to get a certain price, get a certain product." In government, it's finding practical solutions to big problems.

He also notes the importance of telling customers what's best for them in the long run. "They may come in thinking they want one car, but when I hear what they need I'll point them to another," he says. Good advice, it seems, for Congress members too eager to play to their party's base.

Genghis Khan (preferred 41-37) Khan gets a bad rap as a brutal marauder, but life under the Mongol warlord was pretty comfortable. "He built no palace for himself, no temple, no tomb, no monument.

image captionGenghis Khan

All the wealth went to his people, beginning with widows and orphans first," according to Jack Weatherford, author of Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. So perhaps Congress should increase entitlements? But wait!

"He ended taxes for priests, doctors, and teachers, and he reduced taxes for anyone who was literate, had a craft or any other skill," writes Weatherford in an email to the BBC. So perhaps Congress should also cut taxes.

But US lawmakers are stuck at an impasse these days because they can't do both - and considering their track record, invading wealthy nations to finance this largesse, as Khan did, is out of the question.

DC political pundits(preferred 37-34) The chattering class of DC pundits is a frequent target for ridicule. These journalists and analysts try to predict the outcome of elections and interpret the will of the politicians they cover, then follow up by making excuses for why they got it so wrong.

But it's hard not to notice "a perceptible tone of disgust from the pundit class as to what Washington has turned into", says David Weigel, a DC-based political reporter for Slate.

When politicians lose the pundits - a group Weigel says has a "barnacle-like" relationship with US lawmakers - things have really gone south.

But all hope is not lost. Weigel says he has seen slight signs of improvement since the 2008 presidential election. "I think it's a bit less frivolous than it was two years ago. There's still dumb legislation, " he says, like moves to repeal Obama's healthcare act. But that legislation is garnering less support.

"There's a little more reason in how they're approaching thing - not that they are doing anything particularly good," he says. But if they keep up the reasonable work, soon America might go back to scorning the pundits who cover politicians, not the politicians themselves.

Nickelback (preferred 39 to 32) The Canadian rock band has been the butt of constant jokes - but they're laughing all the way to the bank. Despite being pop-culture shorthand for "mediocre", Nickelback has sold more than 50m records world wide, and have touring deals worth between $50-70m.

image captionNickelback

"They have been ridiculed for doing formulaic rock'n'roll, but one of the things that people forget is that they are giving a huge subset of fans out there exactly what they want," says Ben Paynter, a contributing writer at Bloomberg Business Week, who recently profiled the band.

In a way, that's not dissimilar to members of Congress. They may be a national joke, but many lawmakers are based out of heavily redistricted areas, protecting their seat and providing a voter base of like-minded Americans.

Many of those voters don't want compromise on issues like taxes and gun laws, and by obstructing national compromise on these issues, they are in fact helping secure their re-election.

But perhaps there is a lesson to learn from Nickelback on how to be more likeable. The band has made strides to embrace their image and be "in on the joke", says Paynter.

"To that end they've done a Funny or Die comedy sketch that went over really well, and their Twitter account now offers sarcastic tweets to people who would ridicule them on Twitter."

So if Congress can't change their obstructionist ways, they can embrace them - House of Representatives Majority Leader Eric Cantor could do a guest spot on the Big Bang Theory, playing a lawmaker trying to shut down funding for scientific research, while his Democratic counterpart, Nancy Pelosi, could say why her party's caucus is secretly trying to destroy the world, for one of David Letterman's top 10 lists.

People may not like Congress any more, but at least they'll be laughing with them, instead of just laughing at them.