The dysfunctional mess that the world witnessed on Monday as the House of Representatives voted down the $700 billion financial bailout bill was Congress not at its worst but, rather, as it is.
Consider what you saw: The president, secretary of the Treasury, speaker of the House, majority leader of the Senate and minority leaders of the House and Senate all agreed the nation was in real peril, even if “only” of the financial sort. With genuine fear overriding their usually ultrapartisan impulses, they put together a bipartisan proposal that not a single member of Congress who has been a regular on the Sunday morning talk shows tried to oppose. The elite of Washington from both parties, the heart of America’s political establishment, were united.
And they screwed it up. If one is to believe The Washington Post, both the Republican and Democratic caucuses in the House knew, or certainly should have known, that the Republicans couldn’t round up enough votes to compensate for defecting Democrats. For reasons no one on Capitol Hill has explained, the House “elite” went ahead with the vote anyway and lost by a not particularly close 205-228 tally. With Wall Street collapsing around their ears, the shocked members then disclosed that they had no backup plan — parliamentary or political — and proceeded to huddle in separate party caucuses to poke about the wreckage. Predictably, Democrats and Republicans alike emerged to point fingers at everyone but themselves.
People who know how to herd cats on Capitol Hill and how to make things happen when they have to are no longer sitting members of Congress. The historically proclaimed “Master of the Senate,” Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Texas), and any of several House speakers who knew how to stand a member in front of an open political grave to get the “right” vote, would be shaking their heads in dismay.
In hindsight, this collapse in leadership was easy to see coming. Having promised to end the war in Iraq if elected speaker, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) showed instead that she was either unwilling or unable to put together a political coalition to keep her word. The U.S. Senate can be described only as a complete shambles. Enacted appropriations bills are as rare as hens’ teeth, and those appropriations that do finally become law require crude parliamentary gimmicks to ensure their passage. Oversight, while feeble in the House, is nonexistent in the Senate. Hearings are platforms for speeches and announcements; witnesses sweating out interrogation by a well-informed questioner are seen only in old news clips.
And now for the bad news: The same crew cobbled together a package that President Bush will eventually sign into law after a Senate “debate,” characterized by staff-scripted speeches and parliamentary maneuvers that avoided real exchanges. And a different sideshow in the House will feature only a temporary show of bipartisanship, the members from both sides hot to get back to finger-pointing and narrowness of spirit.
This crisis will pass. But the bunch that authored it will be back next year. House Republican leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) may not survive a leadership challenge, and other new bodies will populate the House benches and Senate desks after the elections. But nothing will change.
In the face of leaders who don’t lead, the extremes of both parties — that together voted down Monday’s bailout package — will be the ones who are really in charge on Capitol Hill.
It will be a horror show as the spineless political center and the mindless fringes of both parties tackle the issues in 2009. Imagine this bunch trying to fix Washington: repairing the broken economy, enacting sensible legislation to give affordable health care to all citizens, making sense of our tax code, bringing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to reasonable ends, reforming our bloated defense budget and broken military, and helping America survive on favorable terms in a complicated — and not particularly appreciative — world.
The good news is that probably nothing will pass. A dysfunctional Congress surely will lock down the entire system, except for the parts that produce press releases, overheated speeches and blame.
Perversely, this presents a golden opportunity. The absence of courage, ethics and competence on Capitol Hill is a vacuum ready to be filled by the new president. But he will have to demonstrate that he has more of those characteristics than the Capitol Hill collective, which should not be hard.
Recognizing that challenge, both John McCain and Barack Obama have promised reform of — or change in (pick your term) — business as usual in Washington. And yet, all we have so far is talk. Unless one of these two candidates moves to distinguish himself before the elections as someone who can lead Congress and the nation out of this mess, it’s possible that talk is all we will get after Nov. 4, as well.
As our soldiers and Marines on their third and fourth deployments in Iraq say, embrace the suck.
WINSLOW T. WHEELER spent 31 years working on Capitol Hill with senators from both political parties and the Government Accountability Office, specializing in national security affairs. Currently, he directs the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information in Washington and is author of The Wastrels of Defense.