I was asked Monday night on a television talk show about the impact of the revelations by Rep. Anthony Weiner of New York that he had “exchanged messages and photos of an explicit nature with about six women over the last three years…” and then engaged in a cover up when the photos became public.
My reply was that it probably wouldn't have much of an effect. The public's image of Congress as an institution, and of the members of Congress as a body, cannot get much lower.
This incident will, in all probability, serve to reinforce existing low perceptions of Congress rather than lowering them any further. In other words, by this point, when confronted by the sight of a tearful member of Congress confessing into the camera that he had "made terrible mistakes that have hurt the people I care about most," and that he lied about it afterwards, the average American most likely says, “So, what else is new?”
Let’s look first at the perceived honesty and ethics of members of Congress. This is germane given that Rep. Weiner directly lied to reporters and to the public when first asked about the photos.
We ask Americans each year to rate the “honesty and ethical standards of people" in a variety of professions, using a scale of very high, high, average, low, or very low. We usually report the percent who rate each profession “very high” or “high.”
At the top of the list this past November were nurses, with an honesty and ethics rating of 81%, followed by military officers at 73%, and pharmacists at 71%. Others with ratings at 60% or higher included grade school teachers and medical doctors.
At the bottom of the list? Lobbyists and car salespeople, with 7% honesty and ethics ratings each, followed in third place from the bottom by “members of Congress” at 9%. Rated as having more honesty and ethics than members of Congress were business executives, lawyers, newspaper reporters, and auto mechanics among a wide variety of other professions.
To be more specific, here is the breakdown of the honesty and ethics ratings of members of Congress by the American public:
- 1% very high
- 8% high
- 32% average
- 35% low
- 22% very low
The 22% "very low" rating for members of Congress is the lowest of any profession except lobbyists. Of course, given the frequency with which members of Congress become lobbyists, perhaps their proximity in the list is not surprising.
Now, what about confidence in institutions? The news is worse. Out of 16 institutions tested last year, Congress was dead last. Only 11% of Americans expressed a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in Congress, putting it below big business, health maintenance organizations, organized labor, and television news.
At the top of the list? The military, with a 76% confidence rating, followed by small business with a 66% rating, and the police with a 59% rating.
Given these already-low perceptions of the honesty and ethics of members of Congress and of respect for the institution, as noted, there is very little that a single member of Congress can do that mathematically would make the image of Congress worse.
Meanwhile, will Rep. Weiner's confession that he tweeted an inappropriate photo of himself to a young woman, that he exchanged messages and photos of an explicit nature with at least six women, and any new revelations still to come affect Americans' views of morality in this country?
Not likely. At this point, 3% of Americans rate the overall state of moral values in this country as excellent, and 20% rate them as good. That leaves 38% who rate them as only fair and 38% who rate them as poor. Furthermore, 69% say that the state of moral values in this country is getting worse (although that's actually not as negative as five years ago, when 82% said moral values were getting worse).
Rep. Weiner was at pains to point out that he never had "physical relationships" with these women "at any time." Based on his statements, he did not commit adultery, something which 91% of Americans say is morally unacceptable.