It was a week of horror: In the U.S. Congress Democrats and Republicans scuffled in a battle over America’s future. There is no simple solution, however. Congress has allowed itself to be taken hostage.
Not much time remains to demonstrate unity after all of the chaos and impasse of the last few days. The U.S. Congress must provide evidence that it is still capable of great things and that it will not simply let America go bankrupt just because dogmatic parties cannot agree to a compromise in the debt dispute. There is, perhaps, a therapeutic element in the fact that this weekend in Washington begins with a vote on HR 1975.
It is Saturday, 1 p.m., when the representatives are called into the House of Representatives to find a solution to the debt dispute, but first they must vote on HR 1975, a law concerning the renaming of a post office, specifically, the post office at 281 East Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena, California, which in the future will not just be called the post office, but rather the “First Lieutenant Oliver Goodall Post Office Building.” And that doesn’t happen without the blessing of the U.S. Congress.
416 Yes, 0 No
416 representatives are present and, for the first time in weeks, there is no debate, no difference of opinion between Democrats and Republicans, no dissenting vote from the tea party faction. The vote is simply taken. And when the votes are counted shortly afterwards, the results on the board a quarter of an hour later appear to be unthinkable, a result of absolute unity: 416 yes votes and not a single no.
It is an unusual beginning to a weekend that involves the future of America, the existential question of whether or not the U.S., the last remaining superpower, will be able to pay its bills in the coming week. But it fits the mood of Congress this week, the gallows humor that reigns everywhere, from the security officials who control the entrances and hallways to the employees who have been standing in the cafeteria kitchen since 11 in the morning and, if they are lucky, will be permitted to go home at 8 in the evening. One security official complains that the maximum shift length is 16 hours, which is painful for everyone, especially on a Saturday. Things can only get worse.
Will this weekend bring a breakthrough? Will the doctrinaires of the tea party give in to public pressure, to public outrage? Will the spirit that appeared for a moment with HR 1975 prevail?
All involved parties have quiet, cautious hopes this Saturday in Washington, where everyone is patiently waiting — in the press gallery, in the corridors and in the cafeteria. Groups of visitors are guided through the Capitol just like every other day, past the office of the Speaker of the House, who cannot get the rebellious tea party representatives under control and who, as the tour guide notes during every tour, is third in the line of power after the president and vice president.
The debate rocks back and forth today, between the House of Representatives on the south side of the Capitol, where Republicans have the majority, and the Senate on the north side, where Democrats have the upper hand. Democrats and Republicans in both chambers face off irreconcilably. They again stand behind their benches, aggressive and discordant, accusing one another of ruining the country and declaring that the bad proposal is always on the other side. This day, too, threatens to become an exhibition fight, a new day of deadlock.
The journalists stand at the north exit of the House of Representatives, where John Boehner, the ever-tanned Speaker of the House of Representatives, always rushes back to his office. When he comes by, the journalists call to him, “Speaker Boehner, are you optimistic?” Boehner goes stolidly past, without taking a look, without saying anything, and gives a thumbs-up. What else should he do? Nevertheless, the gesture is sufficient for new speculation and a report for the evening news; there is hardly any other indication of hope.
Molly Hooper sits in the press lounge of the House of Representatives. She works for the congressional magazine, “The Hill.” She has already been through a lot. She began here as a page, and says that she has seldom experienced torture like this. She has been sitting here for ten days. She says that she has no more clean clothes in her closet; she doesn’t know what she will wear tomorrow. She knows all the congressional tricks that are being employed, which no voter on the outside understands, but which now dominate the daily routine. Everything becomes more inscrutable each day.
“Breaking News” — They are Speaking Again
In the afternoon comes the report that President Barack Obama has invited Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrats, to the White House. They tear off in black Suburbans and again there is a breath of hope, that something could move, that it could be a positive sign if the president is intervening in the debate.
And then the news, Boehner is appearing before the press in front of the House of Representatives. And hope rises, that something could have shifted.
The four U.S. flags stand in the middle of the congressional hallway, the corridor runs straight as an arrow behind them, the journalists and even the representatives who stand there act lost. Where should they look? To the White House where Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid sit together with Obama? Or to the Republicans?
The microphones are already set up, but ten minutes go by, twenty, nearly thirty. Finally Boehner appears. He has brought along Mitch McConnell, the Republican Minority Leader of the Senate, who represents the southern state of Kentucky. He looks like a congenial horse breeder, and embodies calmness and perhaps also the lethargy of the upper chamber of the Senate.
The Boehner Plan in the House of Representatives wants to save 900 billion dollars, but under pressure from the right wing of the Republicans, it includes an amendment that requires a perennially balanced U.S. budget. This is a red flag for America’s left, so the motion quickly fails in the Senate, where Democrats have the majority.
Boehner is supposed to start, but finally the sedate McConnell rushes to the microphone. He says, “We are now fully engaged … with the one person in America out of 307 million people who can sign a bill into law.” McConnell, of course, means the president.
As quick as lightening, the Republican’s words run across the TV screens and websites. Even the fact that both sides are talking with one another is breaking news these days. The Democrats and Republicans are so far apart that even the news that they are communicating triggers euphoria.
Can the “Hobbits” Now be Quelled?
Right away the cable channels speculate whether the radical tea party wing of the Republicans can be brought to its knees. Former Republican presidential candidate, John McCain, has compared the radical wing that, until now, has hindered any agreement in Congress, to “hobbits.”
Shortly thereafter, Harry Reid, Democratic leader, is seen in the Senate chambers. He only needs one sentence to destroy the hope that has been building over the past few hours. His Republican colleague likes holding “meaningless press conferences,” scoffs Reid. He stresses that there is still no agreement. And it is all over for that budding hope.
It is immediately clear that Reid doesn’t want to negotiate with McConnell, and that McConnell doesn’t want to speak to Reid. But who is actually speaking for whom?
As congressional expert Bill Galston, from the Brookings Institute, groaned in the Huffington Post: “By the time we got to June, it could have been Jesus in the White House and Buddha leading the House of Representatives and it's not clear to me that talks would have reached a substantially different conclusion.”
Because America’s Congress is a congress that has been wounded, or has allowed itself to be taken hostage.
Another Delay — A Good Sign?
This is the best viewpoint in this congressional week of horror, when a small group of tea party activists call for an announcement on the lawn in front of Congress. There are only a few activists, perhaps fifty at best.
And one after another, Republicans in their suits and ties rush over the few meters from Congress, among them Senators and important Representatives who are paying a courtesy visit to the crowd of protesters.
Like Steve King, an influential Representative from Iowa. He steps up to a small wooden podium on the lawn. “Hold the line,” he thunders, stressing that there must be an end to the governmental spending that is already billions of dollars in debt. He gives them what they want to hear.
A man has set up behind him. He has traveled to the capital from Maryland. He has donned a fantasy costume with small wings on a blue facemask. It looks like a mixture of a civil war uniform and a comic book hero. He has hooked a metal bar on his hip, to which a huge U.S. flag is fastened. It stretches high in the sky, one meter high, perhaps two or three.
The man salutes while raising his flag like a soldier, but the flag sways dangerously. “If you don’t respect the constitution, what is left of the greatest country in the world?” the man shouts.
That America’s constitution provides that the validity of the public debt not be questioned (the founding fathers probably weren’t thinking of self-inflicted government bankruptcy) does not disturb him further. Neither does the fact that the flag keeps hitting him in the face. He swings it even harder while Representative King is speaking; the sweat soaks his facemask.
At 1 a.m. the Senate is supposed to vote again on its proposed compromise that was rejected by the House of Representatives in the morning. It is the moment everyone has been waiting for all day. It is dark outside; the light atop the Capitol burns as it always does when a meeting is in session. But then comes the news that the vote has been postponed. The meaning of this is not clear, but everyone agrees that it is probably a good sign.
There must be a reason to come back on Sunday.