Analysis: Debt mess shows Washington's awful side

By Ben Feller

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, July 30 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

President Barack Obama talks about the ongoing budget ceiling negotiations, Friday, July 29, 2011, in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House in Washington.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — There is no changing how Washington works. It doesn't.

Even if a bitterly divided Congress and President Barack Obama avoid a U.S. debt default by striking a last-second deal, as all sides expect, plenty of damage has been done.

People are disgusted. Confidence in the political system is tanking. Nothing else is getting done in Washington. The markets are spooked. The global reputation of the United States has slipped.

And the real kicker? This whole wrenching effort to shrink the debt may actually increase the debt.

Any emergency deal may not be broad enough to prevent the major credit rating agencies from downgrading the United States as a rock-solid investment. That, in turn, could increase the cost of borrowing for the government (hence more interest and debt), not to mention for everyone else.

The spectacle has brought Washington to its knees. Obama went on TV before the nation and called it a circus. One lawmaker felt compelled to apologize to the American people.

"I can only imagine the anger and disgust they have," said Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, "at witnessing a broken government and a president and members of Congress who can't seem to even agree sometimes on what day it is, yet alone to solve the nation's debt crisis."

That about sums it up.

Polls show people's trust in government is at one of its worst levels in decades. An ABC/Washington Post survey this month found that a whopping 80 percent of people were angry or dissatisfied with the federal government. About a decade ago, it wasn't half that high.

Pleading for the parties to work together for the American people, Obama said, "That's the least that they should expect of us, not the most that they should expect of us."

Achieving the least is proving nearly impossible.

Leaders have talked to each other, then not talked to each other, then talked about each other. None of it has really worked.

This Washington moment began as something big — a bipartisan effort to put a real dent in the long-term debt by taking on political issues that are genuinely tough for both parties. It has now devolved into a panicky debate over whether the nation's debt limit will be raised by Tuesday so the country can pay its bills.

Voters, remember, want their leaders to be focused on jobs. The goal of preventing a self-inflicted economic catastrophe is hardly a standard of excellence.

When this is all over, politicians will claim credit wherever they can, and blame their opponents for the long, embarrassing spectacle. The results will be viewed through the prism of the 2012 election, in terms of who came out best overall, or with those oh-so-coveted independent voters, or among their polarized bases as the party primaries approach.

And the public will assign blame, deciding whether those pushing compromise will be rewarded as eminently sensible or punished for caving.

That misses the point.

In the biggest sense, everyone has lost.

"We have now taken a process that was not getting a lot of attention and convinced people that this is not the usual shenanigans. It is farcical and utterly dysfunctional," said Norman Ornstein, a political science scholar at the American Enterprise who has long examined Washington's ways. "Whatever they pull out here in the end, that image isn't going to change."

Consider some of the many ways Washington has not been able to escape itself:

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