Following yet another failure to come up with a plan to reduce deficits, the mood on Capitol Hill has switched from frustration and disillusionment to open self-loathing. Few came forward to defend the "super committee's" decision to deadlock rather than agree to a deal on the deficit.
Congressional staffers, an idealistic bunch by nature, bemoaned another miserable end to a miserable task. Lawmakers announced the bipartisan committee's stalemate by news release, then some hopped on airplanes and headed home for Thanksgiving, where at least their families appreciate them.
But if polling is any indication, those family members are among their few remaining fans. Less than 10% of the public says it approves of the job Congress is doing, a statistic that hangs over all that happens in the Capitol these days.
It's a volley in the fight over which party governs better. It's a punch line in the hallway. (Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina says he has taken to calling himself a lawyer.) It's a chart, put together by Sen. Michael Bennet, identifying things more popular than Congress. The list includesPresident Nixon during Watergate (24%), BP during the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (24%) and the U.S. adopting communism (11%).
In the self-flagellation is a mix of frustration and empathy — an attempt to show voters that lawmakers understand why people don't like them. They feel your pain. You think watching them flail and flounder to accomplish once-routine tasks is hard? Try being a part of it.
"I apologize every time I'm in front of my constituents," Sen. Joe Manchin III, a freshman Democrat from West Virginia, said Monday. "I say, 'I want to apologize for what you all have been enduring.' … We're not giving people what they deserve."
The grim self-assessment reaches beyond the current failure to land a deal on deficit reduction. All year members have complained of partisanship and a frustrating lack of cooperation — a combination that makes the job a whole lot less rewarding. Even the basic task of paying the government's bills has consumed much of Congress' time and energy.
"This sucks," Rep. Tom Rooney, a Republican from Florida, said recently of the budgeting process that has steered Congress from one shutdown deadline to another all year. "I mean, seriously, that's not what anybody came to Washington to do."