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Congress dithered while US withered

A line from legendary manager Casey Stengel fits the moment: “Can’t anybody here play this game?” He was talking about his hapless 1962 New York Mets, but the damning question can be fairly directed to both political parties and Washington itself.

In one of the most worrisome signs of our era, the federal government has never been larger, richer and wielded more power over the lives of citizens. The size, debt and reach are astounding when compared to just a generation ago.

Yet that bejeweled behemoth is failing miserably at many of its most basic duties. Public safety, border security, stable prices and quality public education are in decline, leaving many Americans angry about their government and cynical about the people who run it.

With little regard to the party of the president, polls in recent years consistently show only about three in 10 respondents believe the country is on the right track. More damning, a large Pew study last year revealed an enormous trust deficit.

Just two in 10 Americans believe the federal government does what it should, a low point in a decades-long decline. When the question was first asked in 1958, nearly 75% said they trusted the feds to do the right thing all or most of the time.

It is hard to imagine those days ever returning, with events of last week vividly demonstrating that both parties are hellbent on squandering the little goodwill that remains.

House Republicans amped up their bid to make conservatism a punchline as their inability to promptly choose a speaker made history in all the wrong ways.

House Chambers
Tensions rose in the House Chamber when voting seemed to stall.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

What should have been a feel-good, routine process to kick off a new Congress turned into a bloody slog, with Kevin McCarthy needing 15 roll-call votes over four days to eke out a narrow majority.

When the end finally came about 12:30 a.m. Saturday, it felt more like a mercy rule conclusion than a victory, with McCarthy looking like he needs a vacation before starting work.

Wall-to-wall TV coverage captured the stomach-churning ways the sausage was made, with the process showing intraparty pettiness and anger that obscured some substantive disagreements over how power would be shared. Midterm voters who gave the GOP a narrow majority certainly didn’t believe they would get a civil war before a single vote was taken on their behalf.

Democrats made no effort to mask their pleasure, and why should they? They united behind their leader, Brooklyn’s Hakeem Jeffries, in every round of voting, turning GOP squabbling into comic relief.

Welcome WH distraction

President Biden is set to visit the border for the first time in two years on Sunday.
John Moore/Getty Images

Dems also understood that every minute Republicans spent on the shootout in a lifeboat was a minute stolen from any serious probes of the Biden administration. As it turned out, the GOP frittered away a week in an internal struggle that should have been resolved in the two months since the election.

One inadvertent effect is that the self-neutered GOP copied the House habits of the last two years under Dem control. As Republican James Comer of Kentucky said in a fiery Friday afternoon nomination of McCarthy before the 13th ballot, the House never held a single oversight hearing on the millions who illegally crossed the border or the chaotic and deadly withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Nor did it examine the origin of COVID-19 or the Biden family’s foreign business. He pledged to probe all that and more as head of the Oversight panel — as soon as a Speaker was chosen.

The speech drew loud GOP applause, but failed to put McCarthy over the top. So the crucial probes remained on hold.

Although some of the holdouts demanded changes that smack of personal advantages and perks, others had more important concerns. Chief among these was fixing a corrupt budget-making process where leaders of both houses and parties jam virtually all spending into a gigantic bill, with members expected to vote yes without having time to read or debate it.

In his concessions to the holdouts, McCarthy sensibly vowed to end the practice, which is a major cause of the nation’s soaring debt.

Even before we know whether that and other changes will make a meaningful difference, we already know the speaker fights raised fresh doubts the GOP will accomplish anything significant. A four-seat majority doesn’t leave much margin for dissent and the wasted week reinforced the party’s image of being too divided to govern.

Hundreds of residents and activists marched in El Paso, Texas, on January 7 ahead of President Biden's visit.
Hundreds of residents and activists marched in El Paso, Texas, on Jan. 7 ahead of President Biden’s visit.
Andres Leighton/AP

Meanwhile, the Biden White House proved again that it, too, doesn’t have a clue about good governance as it staged a series of strange events to draw sharp contrasts with the House hijinks.

The president, with Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell in tow, visited Kentucky to tout the bloated bipartisan infrastructure bill, a public relations coup for Biden that earned McConnell barbs from The Wall Street Journal editorial page and other conservatives.

Biden’s border bluster

On Thursday, Biden tried again to impersonate an active president by announcing a plan to deal with Cubans, Nicaraguans, Haitians and Venezuelans who come to the border. Under his order, they must apply for asylum from their home nation or a safe haven and he will admit 30,000 a month on a “parole” program.

As with Biden’s border policies for the last two years, this one is a head-scratcher. Hopefully, legal challenges will scuttle it as an overreach.

Besides, the Border Patrol reports that out of 234,000 November encounters with migrants, about 90,000 were from the four countries Biden cited.

What about the other 144,000 from other countries? And what about the hundreds of thousands of “got aways,” those who cross and disappear without encountering agents? Who knows?

Certainly not Biden, with a highlight of his remarks being another instance of his calling the vice president “President Harris.”

Biden speaks on January 6 during a ceremony to mark the second anniversary of the Capitol riot.
Biden speaks on Jan. 6 during a ceremony to mark the second anniversary of the Capitol riot.
Patrick Semansky/AP

The main point was to show he was doing public business while the GOP was eating its own, a point he will reinforce Sunday when he finally visits the border.

Biden was at it again Friday, too, holding a ceremony on the second anniversary of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. The ostensible purpose was to honor police and others for their conduct that day, but the real purpose was to remind the public about Donald Trump and what Biden calls an “insurrection” carried out by “MAGA Republicans.”

It was a hyper-partisan event, where the president repeated his false claim that defenders “gave their lives” that day. In fact, the only person who died on Jan. 6 was an unarmed protestor shot and killed by a Capitol police officer.

Such distortions highlight a cause of the decline in public trust. When officials of both parties speak in coded ways designed only for core supporters, there is no appeal to people not committed to a partisan camp. The result is the deep and bitter polarization that leaves little space for any American seeking both common sense and common ground.

Unfortunately, Washington offers very little of either these days.

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