Image: A woman holds a sign with a message for President Barack Obama.
Jonathan Ernst  /  REUTERS
A woman holds a sign with a message for President Obama as dozens of Tea Party supporters rally near the U.S. Capitol against raising the debt limit in Washington, July 27, 2011.
updated 7/29/2011 3:53:53 PM ET 2011-07-29T19:53:53

Here’s your homework for today: Go to the Government Printing Office’s website and order the current edition of the Congressional Pictorial Directory, which contains color photographs of every member of the 112th Congress. Save it, and after the 2016 elections, look back through the guide and see how many of this year’s members are still in the House and Senate. My guess is that the number will be shockingly low. Many members will lose in primaries or general elections in 2012, 2014, and 2016; some will retire; and some will seek another office. But I’ll bet that the attrition rate will be remarkably high.

Story: Obama: Any debt solution must be bipartisan

Over the course of history, Congress and the White House have seen highs and lows. Times that can be remembered with pride and other times when politicians failed to meet the American people’s expectations. Right now, we are at a very, very low point—the worst I’ve seen since I moved to Washington in September 1972. Never in my memory have both parties and both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue appeared as dysfunctional as they do today. The stakes are so high and the performance is so utterly disappointing. The goals of most of the debt-ceiling proposals being debated are so modest that victory would really be a defeat in terms of what needs to be done.

Several days ago, I was stopped repeatedly, including once by a security guard in my office building and three times by different people at the grocery store. All were seeking some explanation as to what was happening with the debt-ceiling debate and hoping that I might be able to provide some assurance that things were going to work out OK. In some of these encounters, I tried to come up with a hopeful response; other times, I just threw up my hands.

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That same day, one of my brothers-in-law e-mailed me a long and involved joke about a man who was born with a silver screw in his stomach instead of a belly button. As he grew up, he furtively searched for a way to have the screw removed; finally, at a monastery in Nepal, he found a monk who could make it happen. To make a long story short, a giant screwdriver appears out of a purple mist, removes the screw, and disappears out the window. Jubilant, the man jumps up, and his rear end falls off. The moral of the story is, “Don’t screw around with things you don’t understand—you can lose your butt.” Appended to the joke was the notation that Congress is screwing around with things it doesn’t understand, such as the economy, and that’s why we are all losing our butts. Lawmakers may not realize they are becoming national jokes, but they are.

My wife told me recently about a Facebook post by an acquaintance that held Congress up to ridicule. Apparently, the sentiment was enthusiastically endorsed by people who spanned her entire network of friends—from the most liberal to the most conservative. My wife couldn’t recall anything else that had been so universally embraced by such a politically diverse group of people.

Video: Is GOP extremism is the problem with US politics? (on this page)

If this debt-ceiling debate is producing any political winners or beneficiaries, they have no connection to Congress or the White House. The unfavorable ratings for both parties are climbing, and President Obama’s job-approval rating in the Gallup Poll fell to 43 percent in one recent week, tied for the lowest of his presidency. (At this writing, it is at 46 percent approval/46 percent disapproval, hardly what a president seeking reelection wants to see.) The debt-ceiling debacle has become like a bomb that keeps exploding in Washington, hurting both sides and each end of Pennsylvania Avenue, effectively damaging everyone in sight.

Sadly, my view is that it will probably take a significant stock-market plunge of 500 or 1,000 points in the Dow Jones industrial average, perhaps triggered by a bond-ratings downgrade, to focus minds and cut through the political posturing. The stock and bond markets, neurotic and skittish under the best of circumstances, have been remarkably patient, looking the other way and quietly assuming that everything will work out. They may reach the end of their patience any day. Even a modest deal on deficit reduction and a short-term increase in the debt ceiling may not bring enough confidence to the markets.

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A significant market plunge would cause great pain to 401(k) retirement plans, other personal savings, and the economy in general. The negative wealth effect would be great, but another type of loss would be just as bad—just not as obvious.

Washington is now sullying America’s long-deserved reputation as the leading country in the world to such an extent that we are becoming a laughingstock. The renowned, late journalist A.J. Liebling, a fixture for many years in The New Yorker and a chronicler of then-Louisiana Gov. Earl Long, once wrote that the home state I share with Long was “the northernmost of the banana republics.” If Liebling were alive today, he might expand his “northernmost” banana republic to include the whole United States, with Washington as its sorry capital. My guess is that most members of Congress and their aides are too close to the process and don’t fully appreciate what they are doing to themselves, the institution, and the nation’s political process. The Pictorial Directory test will determine if I’m right.

The article, "The Cook Report: A Laughingstock," first appeared in the National Journal.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

Video: Reid: Senate GOP threatens filibuster on debt bill

  1. Closed captioning of: Reid: Senate GOP threatens filibuster on debt bill

    >> in the senate rejected the boehner short-term plan clearly. we're seeing something we've seen a lot here in the senate , but this time the country's attention is focussed on it, a filibuster. a filibuster to prevent us from moving forward on this legislation. the proposal i put forward is a compromise. we changed it even more today. we would have changed it more, but as i indicated on the floor, we had no one to negotiate with. the republican leader said he wouldn't negotiate with me. i don't know whose that is. not mine.

    >> your pizza's ready. [ laughter ]

    >> it really is the worst possible time to be conducting a filibuster. they are forcing us to wait until tomorrow morning , until sunday morning at 1:00 a.m . to have this vote. our economy hangs on the balance, and for the first time in the history of our country, unless there is a compromise or they accept my bill, we're headed for economic disaster . it's time for the republicans to step forward . there's been some movement today. we, as i indicated on the floor, i was supposed to have a meeting in my office this afternoon with some republicans and that fell through, but we're told that the press secretary, as they were walking into a conference, they had three republican senators said they were interested in my bill, interested in compromise. we hear a lot of happy talk about this, but they need to step forward . republicans are blocking their ability to compromise. they are refusing to negotiate with us and all they do is talk, and that is not enough to get it done. the house will hold an up or down vote, we're told, on my proposal. we should be allowed to do the same. that's all we're asking. it's time for us to be adults. that's what the american people want. it's time to come together and compromise. it's what the american people want, and that's what we need to do. senator durbin?

    >> i'm sure you recall the speech that was given to the american people on monday night by speaker boehner . he talked about his bipartisan bill and about the fact he was going to pass it in the house of representatives . we waited for that on tuesday, again on wednesday, then on thursday, and finally today passed it, but it wasn't bipartisan. all republican votes, not a single democratic vote, and a scant majority, 218 out of a 435 member house . when it came to the united states senate , it was dead on arrival on a bipartisan basis. a bipartisan majority of senators, 59, voted it table the boehner proposal. and now we have a chance to reopen this conversation. and i can tell you there is a growing sentiment among senators on both sides of the aisle to sit down and reach a reasonable compromise and to save our economy from the disaster that awaits us if we fail to extend this debt ceiling. what these senators on the republican side are waiting for is a permission slip from senator mcconnell . he told them to hold back until boehner had his chance. hold back until the boehner bill came to the floor. that's all history now. the american people want us to move forward. they want us to come up with a bipartisan approach that doesn't have us relive this scene that we've seen for the past week over and over and over again like the old groundhog day movie . we want to get this done in a way so we can say the economy's going to move forward with the certainty that we're going to have a debt ceiling extension and we are not going to jeopardize it with this problem of self-imposed political problems and wounds that can be avoided. it's a shame. we waited all day. this morning, senator reid went up to senator mcconnell on the floor and said let's talk, let's work this out. nothing, nothing, all day long, not a word. and later, at the end of the day , a call from senator mcconnell who said i'm not going to negotiate with you. that's unfortunate. the american people deserve better, and let me say one last thing, if senator mcconnell would give us the same vote standard in the senate that was given to speaker boehner in the house , we could pass senator reid 's proposal, a proposal which includes major elements suggested by senator mcconnell , but no, they insist on a filibuster. he said 60 votes had become routine, routine because filibusters have become routine on the republican side of the aisle. it isn't what's necessary to enact this law that's so critical to the future of america. we're going to fight this filibuster, and i hope in the end some republicans will cross over and join us and break this stalemate and come up with a bipartisan agreement.

    >> well, thank you, and, you know, this morning at 10:00 a.m . on the floor of the senate , leader reid asked senator mcconnell to come negotiate. the door was open all day, nobody knocked, nobody walked in. and some said well, speaker mcconnell wanted to wait until the house disposed of boehner , but after the boehner amendment was defeated, in a telephone conversation with leader reid , i was sitting there, senator mcconnell still refused to negotiate. we will not solve this problem by standing there and folding our arms and saying i am not talking to anybody. and the nation's future is at risk. republican senators, i've talked to ten today, they want to come to an agreement. but until senator mcconnell gives them the green light , nothing is going to happen. and they get the vibes and, perhaps, the direct word, i don't know, from the republican leader , don't do anything. we all know in the senate we can't pass anything with about a bipartisan agreement. we all know the senate is the only way out of this mess. you've seen the huge difficulties in the house , their inability to even tie their own shoes, and so it's up to the senate , and that means it's up to senator mcconnell to either negotiate himself or give permission to others to negotiate so that we can finally come to a bipartisan agreement. the only game in town is the modified reid bill. it's a bill that has elements proposed by republicans and senator mcconnell . it's a bill that has elements proposed by democrats, but it meets the strictures that both parties have laid out on our side, that it must extend the debt ceiling beyond 2012 , no short-term extension, that too much roils the market. on their side, no revenues, and as many cuts as increases in the debt ceiling. if they don't like it, even though it seems to have been a prescription drawn from their needs, what do they want as an alternative? they are very good at saying no, they are not very good at laying out a plan that can actually pass. and, instead, what do they do, they just filibuster. they say you can't proceed to a bill and vote on it. they say that they are going to force us to delay and delay and delay until we get up to the deadline. the country's in crisis. this is not a time for politics as usual. i think we have shown that we are willing to give significantly in their direction. we're still waiting for speaker mcconnell , leader boehner , sorry, we're still waiting for leader boehner and speaker mcconnell to move a little bit in our direction.

    >> we'll take a few questions, not many tonight. we're all tired, have a long night, going to have a longer night tomorrow.

    >> reporter: you added in mcconnell 's language, your bill, your own bill, enough cuts, two weeks ago he was willing to have his own bill with no cuts guaranteed. wondering if you, you know, if one thing you didn't do is add any triggers. there have been a lot of talk of -- significant weight that would force this deficit reduction committee, why did you do that?

    >> we have had -- we got a closet full of triggers that people have suggested, literally, dozens of them. even though they are good ideas, earlier this week, a few days ago, i was sitting talking to jack lew and rob neighbors, who we all know is such a good person, and we talked for an hour and a half about different triggers. i came to the conclusion we're negotiating with ourselves. we can't get republicans to agree with any trigger that involves revenue of the we cannot, the american people know this because they agree with us, we are not going to have cuts to more programs, more programs and more programs without some revenue. it is -- it is -- that is a line that we've drawn in the sand and we're going to stick with it. i've spoke a couple of times with leader pelosi, she agrees with me 100%.

    >> reporter: so the house passed two plans now and what's -- schumer said this is the only game in town now. what's the contingency plan if this doesn't get through the senate ?

    >> i think senator schumer laid that out pretty clearly. the plan is to work off our bill. we have a message from the house , it's easy to, if there's an agreement that comes up, it's easy to amend that, and we send it back to the house . they only need one vote over there. to think with a straight face, to think with a straight face that they've sent us something that the american people would accept, the ryan budget, cap and cut, whatever that is, and then this thing? that's not legislation. that is -- that was an extravaganza over there that made them all look very foolish. yes?

    >> reporter: everyone's now wondering, friday night, going into the weekend, what is the end game ? how is this going to end up? i know you're calling for leader mcconnell to come to the table and negotiate, but what is the way forward from here?

    >> it's up to the republicans . right now we have a fine proposal, extends the debt ceiling until march of 19 -- 2013 , yet reduces the debt by $2.4 trillion. it's a fine piece of legislation, sets up the joint committee to even make further cuts. it would be something that we believe and senator mcconnell will acknowledge this very strongly as does leader pelosi we could get something out of this. we are waiting for them to do something, anything, move toward us, but that fails, they should go for our bill, because it's basically -- that is things they've already voted on, things they agreed to. last question.

    >> reporter: reduced the debt ceiling increase to $2.4 and decreased savings -- use the january baseline, are all of your increase savings due --

    >> cbo has come up with those numbers and i've told you all before, we have laid out all of our numbers, you can dissect them, look at them, this is what the cbo has recommended and we've followed their advice. thank you.


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