Politics & Government

Blizzard paralyzes Washington, but is that really news?

White House buried during a white-out northeaster blizzard.
White House buried during a white-out northeaster blizzard. Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT

WASHINGTON — Back-to back storms have turned snow day in the nation's capital to snow week. Federal agencies have been closed since Friday afternoon, the House of Representatives and the Senate have canceled all votes and the endless stream of luncheons, congressional hearings, press conferences and cocktail parties — the lifeblood of political Washington — is frozen.

Forgive most Americans if they haven't noticed.

Far from Washington's snowiest winter in more than a century, Social Security recipients are still getting their checks. Tax returns and Medicare claims are being processed without interruption at regional centers around the country. Constituents can still contact their members of Congress through district field offices, and military commanders in Afghanistan and Iraq are going about their duties, albeit with fewer interrupting e-mails and phone calls from the Pentagon, the White House and Capitol Hill.

As Wednesday's blizzard buried the capital under another foot of snow, almost certainly shuttering federal offices until after President's Day next Monday, it also raised a question that Washington might not want answered.

Does anyone out there care that the seat of political power in the United States has been in hibernation for nearly a week?

Or, for many Americans, is the image of a capital helplessly encased in ice, a snow globe sealed off from its surroundings, a fitting metaphor for Washington's glacial pace, dysfunction and narcissism?

"There is a belief often in Washington, D.C., that it is the center of the universe," said Danny Rotert, an aide to Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., in the congressman's Kansas City office. "I don't think most people think about Washington on a day-to-day basis."

To some, the winter gridlock might seem appropriate for this particularly stagnant moment in national politics, with President Barack Obama struggling to win support for his economic and health care plans from Republicans — and from some members of his own party.

Senate leaders had planned this week to take up a multibillion-dollar bill to create jobs, while the House was scheduled to vote on a bill to end an antitrust exemption for health insurers, which supporters said would lead to more competitive insurance rates.

The House gave up on Tuesday, saying that it wouldn't hold any votes this week. Hours later, with snow and sleet pelting the Capitol, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said there probably wouldn't be any action there this week, either. Next week, both chambers are in recess for the President's Day holiday.

The jokes about Washington inaction practically write themselves.

"No activity. No signs of life. Absolutely nothing going on," David Letterman said in his late night monologue Monday. "Well, how can you tell the difference?"

"Where every day is a snow day," quipped cartoonist Tom Toles in Tuesday's Washington Post.

Thankfully, a blizzard isn't like a hurricane or an earthquake; it's an awesome display of nature's might that usually doesn't do permanent damage. So it's understandable that some Americans were unmoved, if not gleeful, to see their capital ground to a halt.

For military commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington is the turning point of what some call "the 8,000-mile long screwdriver," the source of endless e-mails and videoconference calls from the halls of political power with ideas on how to conduct the wars — almost all of them unsolicited.

At the headquarters of the U.S.-led international force in Kabul, Afghanistan, commanders and their aides said the snow has done what distance couldn't do: It's shielded them, if temporarily, from an avalanche of advice.

E-mails from Washington have dropped by nearly two-thirds since the storms began. "Tele-commanding," the commanders' lingo for nagging questions that Google usually can answer and not-so-subtle reminders about the political implications of military decisions, has virtually ceased.

"I think everyone (in Washington) is just taking a snow day," said one senior military official, sounding quietly relieved.

Officials estimated that 230,000 Washington-area government employees — 15 percent of the federal work force — staying home costs roughly $100 million a day in lost productivity. Agencies and congressional aides were quick to point out, however, that many people were working from home, and that offices in other regions of the country were picking up any slack.

"There is a blizzard of work on my kitchen table to rival the weather conditions outside," said Gil Duran, a spokesman for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

Social Security payments are largely unaffected because 86 percent of recipients have their checks deposited directly into their bank accounts, said Mark Lassiter, a spokesman for the Social Security Administration in Baltimore who was working from home. For the remaining 14 percent who receive checks in the mail, the storm hasn't yet affected a payment date, Lassiter said.

Medicare and Medicaid recipients also should feel no impact from the closure of the services' Baltimore headquarters. Medicare claims are processed and paid by contractors across the country, while Medicaid bills are paid by agencies in each state.

With tax season now under way, the Internal Revenue Service is processing early returns at offices throughout the country. "The bottom line is that taxpayers are unaffected," said Michelle Eldridge, an IRS spokeswoman.

OK, OK — we get it. But this only raises another uncomfortable question.

If everything is running smoothly, just how badly do we need Washington at all?

"When you're in Washington, you feel like you're in the nerve center of the U.S.," said Betsy Rothstein, co-editor of FishBowlDC, a politics and media blog. "But when you're away from D.C., you feel like everyone there is just removed from the rest of the country.

"This weather makes it official."

(Lesley Clark, David Goldstein, Kevin G. Hall, David Lightman, Nancy A. Youssef and other reporters in the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this article.)


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