Here’s your homework for today: Go to the Government Printing Office’s website and order the current edition of the Congressional Pictorial Directory, which contains color photographs of every member of the 112th Congress. Save it, and after the 2016 elections, look back through the guide and see how many of this year’s members are still in the House and Senate. My guess is that the number will be shockingly low. Many members will lose in primaries or general elections in 2012, 2014, and 2016; some will retire; and some will seek another office. But I’ll bet that the attrition rate will be remarkably high.
Over the course of history, Congress and the White House have seen highs and lows. Times that can be remembered with pride and other times when politicians failed to meet the American people’s expectations. Right now, we are at a very, very low point—the worst I’ve seen since I moved to Washington in September 1972. Never in my memory have both parties and both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue appeared as dysfunctional as they do today. The stakes are so high and the performance is so utterly disappointing. The goals of most of the debt-ceiling proposals being debated are so modest that victory would really be a defeat in terms of what needs to be done.
Several days ago, I was stopped repeatedly, including once by a security guard in my office building and three times by different people at the grocery store. All were seeking some explanation as to what was happening with the debt-ceiling debate and hoping that I might be able to provide some assurance that things were going to work out OK. In some of these encounters, I tried to come up with a hopeful response; other times, I just threw up my hands.
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That same day, one of my brothers-in-law e-mailed me a long and involved joke about a man who was born with a silver screw in his stomach instead of a belly button. As he grew up, he furtively searched for a way to have the screw removed; finally, at a monastery in Nepal, he found a monk who could make it happen. To make a long story short, a giant screwdriver appears out of a purple mist, removes the screw, and disappears out the window. Jubilant, the man jumps up, and his rear end falls off. The moral of the story is, “Don’t screw around with things you don’t understand—you can lose your butt.” Appended to the joke was the notation that Congress is screwing around with things it doesn’t understand, such as the economy, and that’s why we are all losing our butts. Lawmakers may not realize they are becoming national jokes, but they are.
My wife told me recently about a Facebook post by an acquaintance that held Congress up to ridicule. Apparently, the sentiment was enthusiastically endorsed by people who spanned her entire network of friends—from the most liberal to the most conservative. My wife couldn’t recall anything else that had been so universally embraced by such a politically diverse group of people.
If this debt-ceiling debate is producing any political winners or beneficiaries, they have no connection to Congress or the White House. The unfavorable ratings for both parties are climbing, and President Obama’s job-approval rating in the Gallup Poll fell to 43 percent in one recent week, tied for the lowest of his presidency. (At this writing, it is at 46 percent approval/46 percent disapproval, hardly what a president seeking reelection wants to see.) The debt-ceiling debacle has become like a bomb that keeps exploding in Washington, hurting both sides and each end of Pennsylvania Avenue, effectively damaging everyone in sight.
Sadly, my view is that it will probably take a significant stock-market plunge of 500 or 1,000 points in the Dow Jones industrial average, perhaps triggered by a bond-ratings downgrade, to focus minds and cut through the political posturing. The stock and bond markets, neurotic and skittish under the best of circumstances, have been remarkably patient, looking the other way and quietly assuming that everything will work out. They may reach the end of their patience any day. Even a modest deal on deficit reduction and a short-term increase in the debt ceiling may not bring enough confidence to the markets.
A significant market plunge would cause great pain to 401(k) retirement plans, other personal savings, and the economy in general. The negative wealth effect would be great, but another type of loss would be just as bad—just not as obvious.
Washington is now sullying America’s long-deserved reputation as the leading country in the world to such an extent that we are becoming a laughingstock. The renowned, late journalist A.J. Liebling, a fixture for many years in The New Yorker and a chronicler of then-Louisiana Gov. Earl Long, once wrote that the home state I share with Long was “the northernmost of the banana republics.” If Liebling were alive today, he might expand his “northernmost” banana republic to include the whole United States, with Washington as its sorry capital. My guess is that most members of Congress and their aides are too close to the process and don’t fully appreciate what they are doing to themselves, the institution, and the nation’s political process. The Pictorial Directory test will determine if I’m right.
This article appears in the July 30, 2011, edition of National Journal.