As a boy, I enjoyed playing the game "Limbo," with the idea being to set a bar as low as possible and then shimmy under it.
These days, lawmakers are also in limbo, but it's not fun for them. The latest Gallup Poll shows only 14 percent of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing. That's an all-time-low, "besting" the previous low (18 percent) reached just before the 1994 elections that threw out Democrats and created a 12-year Republican majority.
Why are folks on Capitol Hill so unpopular? For one thing, Congress hasn't learned that it shouldn't mess with the U.S. military. Democrat leaders are making long, drawn-out efforts to pull our military out of Iraq, even though Americans realize the troops' job isn't finished.
That pits the new majority directly against the group most highly respected by the public - our men and women in uniform. Our military is 5 times more popular than Congress, with the favorable opinion of 69 percent of the country.
It's also worth noting that the strongest support for the new Congress always came from the extreme left. They were motivated voters in 2006, but swiftly became distressed when "their" Congress failed to bring the troops home from Iraq immediately.
While the new congressional majority tried to curry broad favor by passing a series of populist measures "within the first 100 hours," the extreme left wanted to keep the focus squarely on the Iraq debate. Its hard-line "bring them home now" attitude turned off much of the rest of the country, reviving memories of the peace movement of the '60s, the era when everyone tried Limbo.
Once Democrat leaders finally yielded on the Iraq pullout fight - for the time being, anyway - their support from the left collapsed, too. That's why both Sen. Hillary Clinton and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi were booed by large liberal audiences recently.
It's a two-edged sword when politicians pander to extremists. The far left won't be satisfied without a complete cut-and-run from Iraq, huge increases in federal spending, higher taxes, amnesty for illegal aliens and an extreme, job-killing environmental agenda. Yet when Congress accedes to these demands - for example, by proposing dramatic spending increases - lawmakers take a hit between the eyes from the rest of the country.
Republican members of the House are trying to regain their credibility as fiscal conservatives by pledging to support presidential vetoes of excessive spending. But after years of broken spending promises from the (former) Republican majority, voters will remain wary and skeptical until they see some real action: presidential vetoes and the votes that sustain them.
In short, when Congress goes left, it automatically loses support from most of the country, which still leans conservative. And when it tries tacking back to the right, the belated and usually half-hearted move fails to appease conservatives, even as it angers liberals.
And then there's the immigration bill. In May, lawmakers tried to ram a bad bill through the Senate with minimum debate. A handful of senators managed to stall that bill, but the failure only prompted an effort to change strategies. A similar measure soon came back, although this time lawmakers tried to explain their bill would emphasize enforcement over amnesty.
The public wasn't fooled, however. They knew the core of the newer version was still "shamnesty," and they have to wonder why leading senators kept pushing so hard for a bill that, polls show, most Americans opposed.
On this issue, Congress lost popularity not only because of the bill, but because of the process used to foist it on the public. First, a group of senators skirted the regular committee process to ram a bill through. Then, a different group of senators used arcane parliamentary maneuvers to kill the bill. Americans blame Congress for an ugly procedure that generated an unpopular bill.
Common-sense thinkers want a bill that improves security through better enforcement and provides for rational legal immigration without granting amnesty. Even if lawmakers can't yet agree on the fate of the 12 million already here illegally, that's no excuse for putting off the reforms that are indisputably needed. Not every bill has to be "comprehensive."
Coming on the heels of the back-and-forth Iraq pullout votes and the disenchantment of those on the left, the immigration issue has driven down Congress' approval to far south of the border. Don't expect those numbers to rebound any time soon.
Most of America wants principled, conservative-leaning leadership. When Republicans didn't live by their conservative principles, they lost their majority. But when people voted for change, they were asking for principled governance, not liberal leadership. Now that voters are getting the liberal leadership they never wanted, they are giving Congress its lowest approval rating in history.
Neither party currently has the trust of the people. The way things are going, Congress will probably limbo even lower, unless members start listening to the will of the people... and acting on it.
Ernest Istook, a former congressman who served on the Select Committee on Homeland Security, is a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation
First appeared in the Washington Times