The trend, building to a crescendo since Washington's back-to-back snow storms brought government to an honest standstill for a few days, has metastasized this week: Congress is broken, dysfunctional, gridlocked and generally out to lunch according to the media, some Congress members themselves and the American public.
On Tuesday, a CNN poll confirmed the public's opinion – 63 percent agree that federal lawmakers do not deserve re-election - to which the only reasonable question left is: what's wrong with the 34 percent who don't agree.
The country, if not Congress, appears to be united on something.
Most recently, my own two senators, Maine Republicans Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe voted with their party against cloture on the nomination of Craig Becker to the National Labor Relations Board leaving that agency essentially non-functional with only two members. Government cannot be run this way and no one can claim the president is not leading when Congress is still blocking most of his appointments more than a year after the inauguration.
With the health care reform bills apparently dead, President Obama announced a bipartisan summit on health care at which he will present a new reform bill for discussion. House Republican leader John Boehner demands that the bill be published online before the summit then whines, when the White House agrees, that Republicans were not included in its creation.
In a remarkably tone-deaf comment about multi-million dollar bank bonuses, the president – assuming way too much solidarity with the public – tells an interviewer, “I, like most of the American people, don’t begrudge people success or wealth.”
Administration officials tell us bailout of the banks was necessary to see keep the economy from sinking into a depression and that it worked. Yes, well, it worked for the already wealthy, but growing numbers of Americans continue to go hungry, lose their homes, postpone needed health care and sink into poverty while Congress doesn't even pay lip service to the devastation throughout the country, and the executive branch seems not to realize how dire the situation is for millions of people.
Nothing I hear or read from the president and Congress – all of whom are either wealthy themselves or live like the rich due to their ability to write off lavish expenditures - leads me to believe they haven't the least understanding of the country's pain.
• The administration touts a tiny drop in the unemployment rate, but we all know it has been way undercounted all along and remains closer to 20 percent – near Great Depression levels.
• Average wages have not increased in more than a decade.
• The jobs bill in Congress - only $15 billion – is too small by magnitudes to have an impact. If Congress passes the bill, it will create no jobs. None. (And renewal of the abominable Patriot Act is buried in that puny bill.)
• One in eight Americans (including 14 million children and nearly 3 million elders) are going hungry.
• Foreclosure filings increased 15 percent in January over a year ago, and have been at more than 300,000 per month for 11 consecutive months – real people in 3 million 300 thousand homes forced out in just one year.
• Large private health insurers are raising premiums by more 39 percent (!) this year. Tens of thousands of people barely hanging on will have no alternative but to drop their coverage.
• As a small, personal example of corporate gouging in the worst economic times in 80 years, Time Warner increased my cable TV/internet fee by more than 11 percent, and a credit card bank imposed a $60 annual fee this month. I canceled the card.
Now forget all those numbers and think about the people behind them, make them real and picture yourself and your family in these straits. Stomach growling but no money for food today. Packing up what belongings you can stuff in the car and moving in with a relative who probably doesn't have enough room for you. Or perhaps you are one of the homeless living out of your car or – I don't know how people do it – on the street hoping there will be food left when it's your turn in the soup kitchen line.
Even if you avoid that extreme, imagine your prescriptions for heart disease or asthma or diabetes running out and no money to buy more. How about telling your kid you can't afford college for him/her this year. And if you're unemployed, the horrible daily grind for months on end of sending out resumes with never even an acknowledgment that they are received.
What is missing in our leaders is any sense they know this is happening as they bicker and posture over arcane procedural rules to block any forward movement. One senator who high-mindedly announced he is opting out of the re-election campaign this year because he can no longer tolerate the inactivity in Congress then refuses to rule out hiring on as a lobbyist.
(Apparently, lobbying has become the only growth industry in the country. Corporations and interest groups spent $3.47 billion on lobbying the federal government last year and one wonders which greedy bank Evan Bayh will sell his soul to.)
No thinking person expects our economy to turn around in a year or even two or three. But we should be able to expect the people we hire to run the day-to-day business of the nation to step up when there is a crisis of emergency proportions and do something useful.
I want them – Republicans and Democrats together - huddling in their committees producing workable solutions. If they must earmark bills, I want those millions going to feeding and housing people who need it so badly right now – not building bridges to nowhere. FDR is the obvious example for Washington to heed.
Most of all, we need some legislators who believe in our form of democracy, who choose politics because they want to serve their country and its people, who go to Washington to make a positive difference. What have we got instead?
There is a marvelous line in the opening of the TV show, Burn Notice: “You know spies – a bunch of bitchy little girls.” It applies equally to Congress.