When the voters’ job rating of Congress fell in one national poll this year to just 9 percent positive, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., explained that “9 percent” meant he and his congressional colleagues were “down to blood relatives and paid staffers.”

After House Republicans refused, for the better part of a week, to accept a compromise agreed to by Senate Democrats and Republicans, as well as President Barack Obama, to extend the payroll tax cut for 160 million Americans, Congress looked even more dysfunctional.

For their obstructiveness, House Republicans were publicly scolded by Karl Rove and The Wall Street Journal editorial page, which thundered: “Given how he (Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell) and House Speaker John Boehner have handled the payroll tax debate, we wonder if they might end up re-electing the president before the 2012 campaign even begins in earnest.”

The late Rep. Mo Udall, D-Ariz., who had unsurpassed wit and decency, once described his own political party’s constant intramural feuding, “When Democrats organize a firing squad, they begin by forming a circle.” That’s exactly how Republicans spent the week before Christmas 2011.

This continuing loss of confidence in our governmental and political institutions saps the already depleted national confidence and sours even more the nation’s foul mood. In the December Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll, voters were asked, “How would you rate the overall performance and accomplishments of this year’s Congress — one of the best, above average, average, below average or one of the worst?”

In the 21 years that question has been asked, this current session recorded the largest percentage (42 percent) ever branding a Congress “one of the worst.” Before the political earthquake of 2010, which elected a Republican House majority, fewer than one out of three had called that Democratic Congress “one of the worst.” To be fair, a smashing 1 percent of respondents judged the current Congress “one of the best.”

Not surprisingly, seven out of 10 voters disapproved in that same December poll “of the job Republicans in Congress are doing,” while just over one-quarter approved. The numbers for congressional Democrats were not quite as bad: 31 percent approval and 62 percent disapproval. Negative feelings (42 percent) toward the Democratic Party were stronger than positive feelings (32 percent), but they were still better than public feelings toward the Republican Party, which were 48 percent negative and 27 percent positive.

What this means for 2012 could be found in the August analysis of Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who told NBC’s Chuck Todd that the time was arriving “to compare this president to the alternative” because “we’ve been comparing this president to the Almighty for long enough.” The recent — admittedly slight — uptick in Obama’s admittedly low job rating in the most recent CNN national survey could well be a direct reaction to his looking, by comparison, better as Congress looks worse and worse.

Respected Democrat pollster Peter Hart, who with his Republican colleague Bill McInturff conducts the Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll, believes that the dysfunctional and hyper-partisan atmosphere prevailing in Washington, because it reminds people of the acrimony and scorched-earth politics of the Speaker Newt Gingrich era, could be contributing to presidential candidate Gingrich’s decline in recent surveys. That could well happen when Congress’ support is “down to blood relatives and paid staffers.”

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.