WASHINGTON — Washington has its moments when the nation's capital shines for all the world to see. Inaugurations. The Fourth of July.
This isn't one of them.
Recent days instead have shown Washington at its worst. An ethics mess in the House of Representatives, even in its ethics committee. A nasty fight over spending in the Senate with the two major parties scrambling for political advantage rather than helping Americans in need.
The White House exploding in leaks and back-stabbing over who's to blame for the failures of President Barack Obama's first year. Lobbyists flooding the capital to stop financial revisions. One senator, Ben Nelson, D-Neb., holding up the health care overhaul to extort special terms for his state. Another, Richard Shelby, R-Ala., blocking 70 presidential appointees to extort help in getting projects for his state.
The result? Four out five Americans say Washington is so caught up in its own political intrigues that it can't even begin to fix the nation's big problems.
"It looks ugly, just ugly," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at the University of Southern California.
"Washington looks totally dysfunctional right now. They can't seem to get even the most basic problems solved or even addressed," said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. "It looks paralyzed by gridlock, by partisan sniping. And the country's fed up with it."
A new McClatchy-Ipsos poll underscored the sentiment, with 80 percent of Americans saying that Washington is broken and unable to function. The survey also found that those Americans who blame either party are pretty evenly split over whether to blame the Democrats or the Republicans.
There's little doubt, however, that public dismay at all this is fueling the rise of "tea party" rage, Sarah Palin populism and even Jon Stewart's mordant comic commentary on current events.
The Democrats, of course, vowed to change Washington. Obama in 2008 promised a post-partisan politics and a Washington that would do the people's business in the open, unbowed by lobbyists. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in 2006 promised an era of bipartisanship once her party took control of Congress, and "the most honest, most open and most ethical Congress in history."
It doesn't look that way right now.
Last week the House ethics committee admonished Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and one of the top Democrats in Congress, for taking corporate-financed trips to the Caribbean. Within days, he had to step down from his committee post at the very moment it should be at the center of important national issues.
Moreover, the ethics committee also admonished the woman who'd been legal counsel to the late ethics committee chairwoman for skirting House ethics rules to help Rangel and others take corporate-financed trips to the Caribbean.
Some critics thought that the admonishments were inexcusably weak punishment, however.
"The ethics committee is operating as before, which is nonfunctioning," said Melanie Sloan, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group.
Further, the Senate was tied up for days when Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., tried to force it to cut spending on one program to pay for new spending on other urgent priorities, such as extending unemployment benefits.
Democrats harangued Bunning; the White House called him "irrational" and Senate Democrats spotlighted him to discredit his party because he was holding up popular spending.
The Democrats didn't mention that Obama himself had proposed cutting the same federal program, tax credits for an alternative fuel used in the paper industry called "black liquor." Few Republicans rallied to Bunning's side, despite their party's universal complaint about runaway deficits.
Meanwhile, lobbyists stalked the halls of Capitol Hill, many looking to stop new regulation of banks in the wake of Wall Street's economy-shaking meltdown.
Polls find that Americans favor new banking regulations by 2-1, but the Senate hasn't acted. Liberal activists say it's because Obama and Congress haven't reined in the lobbyists.
"President Obama, you made promises. We believed you. But nothing changed," said a Web ad launched last week by the Agenda Project, a group that's pushing for new bank regulations.
Erica Payne, the director of the group, said that banks and other financial firms had spent $400 million trying to influence Congress since the financial crisis started, and that banks that got taxpayer bailout money increased their lobbying budgets by 13 percent over the final three months of last year.
"Has Washington changed? The short answer is no," Payne said. "The long answer is heck no."
At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, the White House sank into a web of intrigue over the president's top aide on a scale not seen since the polarizing John Sununu was the chief of staff to the first President George Bush.
Liberals complained that Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, is the roadblock to enacting their agenda, while friends and allies of Emanuel used The Washington Post as a megaphone to argue that Obama was to blame, not Emanuel, for such first-year missteps as failing to close the Guantanamo Bay prison as promised.
A Post page-one story called Emanuel "a force of political reason" who could've steered the White House to a much more successful first year "if the president had heeded his advice on some of the most sensitive subjects of the year: health-care reform, jobs and trying alleged terrorists in civilian courts."
Said the Post's veteran columnist David S. Broder, often called "the dean of political journalists": "In the space of 10 days, thanks in no small part to my own newspaper, the president of the United States has been portrayed as a weakling and a chronic screw-up who is wrecking his administration despite everything that his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, can do to make things right."
In his column, Broder pronounced that "remarkable fiction."
Said liberal blogger Dan Froomkin: "This hypercompetitive bantam rooster (Emanuel) is attempting to blame others for what went wrong. That's evidently so important to him that he's trying to take a victory lap around the wreckage of what was once such a promising presidency."
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