Expecting Congress to Fumble

Expectations in Congress are so low, you can't even see them anymore.

By + More
WideModern_BuffaloBills_091613.jpg
Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stevie Johnson (13) celebrates with running back Fred Jackson (22) after Johnson's 2-yard touchdown catch with two seconds left in an NFL football game to beat the Carolina Panthers 24-23 Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013, in Orchard Park, N.Y.

Autumn Sundays for many of us (especially in D.C.) mean a closer relationship with our television sets. There are the Sunday political yap-fests in the morning and football all afternoon and evening.

It's appropriate, since sports metaphors are often used to describe political developments – who's up, who's down, where someone's polling numbers are. And that's unfortunate, since the obsession with who's "ahead" has taken precedence over the actual policy or diplomatic goal under discussion. Even more absurd is the relentless focus on President Obama's approval ratings. What is the point of these surveys for someone who has already run and won his last election?

But there are legitimate parallels worth examining, and they have to do with the group dynamic of a team, be it a sports team or a branch of government. It's not just about whether they win or lose, but whether they are in the right mindset to make something positive happen. And that is a trend that is affecting Congress as much – actually, more – than it is any sports team.

I think about this a lot because I am a Buffalo Bills fan, a distinction that has, in the last decade or so, been greeted with the same reaction given to those who announce they have some inoperable tumor. The Bills have gone 13 years without making the playoffs, and fans have come to think of it as the new normal. The Buffalo News' stellar sports columnist, Bucky Gleason, has an excellent piece explaining this groupthink. The "culture of failure," Gleason wrote, has become so ingrained that the Bills may have simply stopped knowing how to succeed.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

The same can be said of Congress. It used to be that budget deadlines would near, and Congress would bluster and posture, but eventually pull some all-nighters and work it out. The dynamic wasn't necessarily a healthy one; surely, it's better to negotiate without being in constant crisis mode. But Congress has become so familiar with the crisis that the dire nature of the situation doesn't even move them anymore. They dangerously moved the needle a couple of years ago, balking at raising the debt ceiling (causing the lowering of the nations' credit rating as a result). And yet, we're still here, which only gives the provocateurs on the Hill more hubris as they try to move the needle even more.

What's happened on the Hill is the same thing that has happened (or had been happening, before yesterday) in Buffalo: people are so used to failure and substandard performance that they don't even consider the possibility that they could end up with a positive result. Congress is dysfunctional, and that characterization has been made for so many years now that the members simply don't know how to behave any other way.

It's not simply that there are people on the Hill who have strong disagreements with each other. It's that they have become too accustomed to not getting things done, and have forgotten what success looks like. They fight over the budget and sequestration not with a true goal of finding a compromise, but of casting the other side as the enemy ahead of the next election (or two or three elections). The House regularly votes on legislation to undo Obamacare, knowing full well the mission will fail. They have become so entrenched in a culture of failure that they simply have stopped trying to achieve success.

Buffalo on Sunday looked like a team with hope, managing to get it together with a minute and a half left in the game to drive the ball 80 yards down the field and win. That will only mean something when the team and the fans no longer see that as a fluke, but as something very doable. Congress could well do the same. At this point, the barrier is no longer about a budget amount or a regulatory scheme detail. It's about an environment where fighting alone – with no real goal in mind – has become the norm. It's time to change the mindset. Or it's game over.

  • Read Jamie Chandler: Syria and the 'American Exceptionalism' Distraction
  • Read Pat Garofalo: Five Years After Lehman Brothers and the Financial Crisis, What’s Changed?
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad