- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 16, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

In politics, the worst fate is to be laughed at rather than laughed with. Voters are laughing at Congress these days. In fact, they’re laughing about laughing.

Former Rep. Eric Massa famously tickled a young male staffer until he couldn’t breathe. The joke was on the New York Democrat and every other lawmaker as well.

Approval of Congress, according to recent polls, is in the teens. Three-quarters of Americans disapprove of lawmakers’ performance.

The Massa groping scandal is just one of many reasons for Congress to be held in low esteem.

In fact, lawmakers are having trouble doing anything. And the major thing they hope to do - pass health reform - is losing support by the day.

There is a real prospect that they will be swept out of office in large numbers. Because they’re in the majority, Democrats would bear the brunt of the devastation, but Republican incumbents are just as vulnerable.

Usually, so-called wave elections like this occur every decade or so. However, Americans have gotten so fed up with inaction - or the wrong kind of action - in Washington that the cycle has accelerated. It looks as if a political tsunami could roll in almost every time voters go to the polls.

Nothing seems to be going right for Congress these days. One bill that should be a slam-dunk - legislation designed to prevent Wall Street from melting down like it did a couple years ago - was thrown into jeopardy last week.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, decided to move ahead with a Democrats-only version of the legislation, torpedoing attempts by Republicans to devise a bipartisan alternative.

Mr. Dodd probably will be able to force a bill out of committee relatively soon. But it will have to be rewritten, likely with Republican input, before it has a serious chance of passing on the Senate floor.

In other words, the odds have been reduced significantly that Congress will be able to complete legislation this year that reins in exotic financial instruments and forces possible structural changes on big banks.

Few things would seem more popular in this anti-Wall Street era. Yet even that bill has been tied up by finger-pointing.

The financial regulation bill, like many initiatives this year, has become a victim of the health care debate. If Democratic leaders force a health reform vote in the Senate using the expedited procedure known as reconciliation, Republicans will blockade almost everything, including the Wall Street measure. Reconciliation is abhorred by Republicans because they believe the procedure strips them of rights reserved for the minority party.

Then again, if reconciliation fails to move forward (and we’ll probably know that in the next week or so) the playing field will be more open for a financial regulation bill. At least then, a modicum of bipartisanship will remain on Capitol Hill.

But a modicum is all there’ll be.

Brave words have been spoken by lawmakers who want to work across the aisle to complete measures that deal with climate change, immigration and closing the detention center at Guantanamo Bay.

However, serious negotiations on all those fronts and many others have broken down as Democrats prepare to ram through the president’s top priority.

Republicans have made clear that they will all but go on strike if health reform is moved forward without their participation.

Indeed, the irony is that if the president succeeds on health reform, he will undermine any chance of moving forward on the issue that voters tell pollsters they care about the most - job creation. The already poisonous partisan atmosphere on the Hill will turn absolutely deadly if Democrats succeed in passing health reform under reconciliation.

Democrats disagree. They think that victory will foster other victories. They think voters will come to like health reform once it passes. They also say the worst thing they can do is lose without at least fighting.

Republicans say losing without fighting is exactly what Democrats should do. At least there would be a chance for bipartisanship, they say.

Both sides probably are wrong. It’s hard to see how the logjam breaks, almost no matter what happens or who wins or how. Washington has gotten itself into a terrible state. Working together - Democrats and Republicans - has become a quaint rarity, a vestige from a time past.

Trust has disappeared in the nation’s capital. Nothing happens that is not in some way twisted for political advantage, even the ridiculous misbehavior of a slightly unhinged freshman.

That isn’t a laughing matter.

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum is a Washington Times columnist, a Fox News contributor and president of BGR Public Relations. His company includes health care and financial services clients.

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