Round one of the season’s big budget battle is over, with no real winners. Rounds two and three—the 2012 fiscal year budget and the debt ceiling—are bound to be nastier and more difficult. And it’s not just because budget-cutting is no fun and the Hill is so partisan. It’s that we now have a new element in the war against congressional impasse: the government suicide bomber.
It used to be, in budget battles past, that there was a common element that served as both a brake on emotional decision-making and an impetus for compromise. No one wanted to stop the entire government from operating, to deny basic services to people far away, literally and figuratively, from the partisan fights on the Hill. The floor fights had personal implications, as well, with lawmakers engaging in vitriolic, in-person arguments on the floor. I have a vivid memory of former Rep. Richard Gephardt somehow managing to slam the swinging doors in frustration as he exited the House chamber during one such battle. I remember former Rep. Ron Dellums, dressed exquisitely in a tuxedo—and not in honor of the budget fight vgb—as he pleaded for progress so he could attend the wedding of one of his children. "Mr. Speaker, can I please go love my son?" the former California lawmaker said.
As bad as those days were, they at least included a human element, and a common desire to avoid hurting their constituents. Now, lawmakers rarely debate each other on the House floor—they are more likely to come to the floor, make a two- or three-minute speech, then head back to their offices or party caucus meetings. And now, just as we have learned to adapt to airline security in a post-9/11 world, we have to contend with a federal budget terrorist mindset—the camp that is prepared to bring us all down to advance a political mission. What was once an ominous threat is now a battle cry, with antigovernment, Tea Party forces gleefully yelling "shut it down!"—as though all that was needed for peace and prosperity was to send home government workers. [Check out editorial cartoons about the Tea Party.]
There is a great deal of hypocrisy in some of that crowd; Michael Fletcher smartly reports in the Washington Post about the antigovernment mood in Oklahoma, which as a state benefits greatly from federal largesse. But while worries about the federal debt and deficit are justifiable, contempt for the very existence of government—and, by extension, the democratic process—is not. Members of Congress were elected to serve in the U.S. Capitol, not blow it up.