WASHINGTON – With public dissatisfaction of the U.S. Congress at a near record low, incumbents this summer are striving to make sure they have a quick and ready answer when constituents ask "What have you done for me lately?"
The problem, say some political analysts, is that partisan gridlock and significant expenditures like the war in Iraq have prevented the Republican-controlled House and Senate from passing any sweeping, boast-worthy measures ahead of the November midterm election.
"I think there is a general sense that that this Congress has failed in a lot of ways and hasn’t done a whole lot," said Eliot Peace, a Republican strategist and columnist in Lexington, S.C.
"They've accomplished a lot of things together," said Richard Engle, head of the National Federation of Republican Assemblies. "The problem is a lot of it has been bad overspending."
Out on the campaign trail, Republicans and Democrats in the 109th Congress say they have plenty of accomplishments to be proud of, and offer varying examples, such as a long-awaited energy bill, more tax cuts, a prescription drug benefit for seniors and millions of dollars in appropriations for members’ home districts.
"To secure America’s future, we’ve passed legislation to promote energy independence, keep criminals and pedophiles out of our schools, give relief from the double and triple taxation known as the death tax, fund the War on Terror, support our troops, and eliminate waste and abuse in government spending," Rep. Deborah Pryce, R-Ohio, chairwoman of the House Republican Conference, said in an "Independence Day District Work Period Kit" handed out to GOP incumbents for use at meetings with constituents over the July Fourth recess.
Still, polls continue to indicate that American voters are fed up with Washington, and in particular, the GOP-led Congress.
According to the latest FOX News/Opinion Dynamics poll, 25 percent of Americans said they approve of Congress, down from 29 percent a month ago. Sixty-one percent said they disapprove. Of the 900 registered voters polled July 11-12, 40 percent said Congress is working on issues that are important to most Americans. Thirty-eight percent said Congress has gotten less done than in previous years while 3 percent said they have gotten more accomplished. Fifty percent said Congress was working at about average production.
A Little of This and a Little of That
Though most districts are considered uncompetitive in the fall election, incumbents in scores of races across the country are out and about this summer trying to convince voters they have been working hard to pass new legislation and be good-faith advocates for the district.
In December, the House passed the "Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005," but it is still in conflict with the Senate immigration reform bill, which includes a guest worker program. It is still unclear whether a single bill will be passed by the end of the year. Debate is mixed over whether that will help or hurt lawmakers seeking re-election.
Incumbents also point to the ongoing implementation of the Medicare Modernization Act passed by Congress in 2003, which includes a prescription drug plan that reportedly is easing drug costs for millions of beneficiaries, though the program got an early black eye at its launch in the spring.
But congressional critics contend drug prices have not gone down and the Bush administration is inflating the program’s successes. They also complain that beneficiaries are starting to hit the "donut hole," a gap in coverage when the government does not pay drug expenses.
On the energy front, the GOP conference's talking points herald the passage of the energy bill, which was signed into law last year. They call it a far-reaching measure aimed at “boosting domestic fuel supplies and providing relief, over the long term, from high prices.”
But critics have questioned the impact of the energy measures and argue much of the plan is merely a giveaway in the form of tax incentives and earmarks to corporate energy interests.
Republicans have also been talking up their efforts to extend tax cuts and push for earmark reform. Annual increases in discretionary funding and expensive pet projects are blamed in part to the record national debt.
But Congress has failed so far to pass promised lobbying reform, and national Democrats say they have few opportunities to push any of their own initiatives onto the floor. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid on Tuesday got a rare opportunity to claim credit on an embryonic stem cell research-funding bill that he says Democrats made happen.
"The Republicans force through whatever they want to — that's just the function of how they set it up," said Jen Crider, spokeswoman for the House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. "They don’t let Democratic ideas on the floor, they don't allow open debate.”
“It’s clear we are providing solutions and the Democrats aren’t,” countered Gretchen Hamel, a Pryce spokeswoman. “When it comes to talking the talk, they vote ‘no.”
Crider said Republicans poll numbers are sagging because voters recognize who is in charge, and largely blame the GOP for what a majority of Americans in polls say is the wrong direction the country is going.
"Clearly, Americans don’t like the direction the country is moving in right now; they don’t like this Republican Congress and they don’t see what they've done as relevant to their lives," she said. "The Republicans very clearly, after the last election, boasted they had the House and the Senate and the White House. When things don't get done, people blame those who are in charge."
Despite the fact Democrats are frustrated about not being able to take credit for steering an agenda through the Legislature, analysts point out that many will go home to their districts and take credit for all sorts of new and extended funding for local projects, and for at least introducing measures that may or may not ever see the light of day.
"Democrats don’t control the House or Senate, they can't get things passed, but they can introduce legislation," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "One thing I have learned through the years, voters don’t always discern between what has been introduced and what has been passed."
Bringing home the bacon is also important, and incumbents always have the advantage over their challengers in that they can guide federal dollars to their districts through the appropriations process, analysts said.
"I talk about the tax dollars I've brought home," said Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas, who is in a tough re-election battle in a heavily Republican district. As a member of the appropriations committee, he has direct influence over resources for Texas.
"I think I've been effective in bringing home between 50 and 75 million (dollars) a year in projects that were not in the president's budget requests and I will defend every single one of them," he told FOXNews.com.
Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., voted with House Republicans on the recent immigration reform bill, and as a member of the Veteran Affairs Committee has called for mandatory health care funding for all veterans and a boost in GI Bill benefits.
"We were able to bring back a record number of federal dollars," Salazar said. "We continue to fight for the things people really care about."
Engle said voters are looking to re-elect incumbents with a "clear, positive agenda," who have not only accomplished things for the folks back home, but who pose a forward-thinking plan — and in this current climate of dissatisfaction, any talk about change will be welcomed.
"Voters are saying, 'What do I care what you've done? I want to know what you are going to do,'" he said.