Congress getting down on itself

To its many issues — dysfunction, occasionally impaired judgment, an inability to get things done — Congress can add one more: Low self-esteem.

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 includes President Nixon during Watergate (24%), BP during the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (24%) and the U.S. adopting communism (11%).

"I guess we can take some comfort that Fidel Castro is at 5%," said Bennet, a Democrat from Colorado, in a recent floor speech on the topic.

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."

"Everything we used to take for granted as easy has become a death slog," said one GOP aide, who asked not to be identified so he could speak candidly.

Not surprisingly, most members find plenty of places to lay blame — first and foremost being the other party. Republicans say Democratic leaders in the Senate are blocking popular legislation, hoping to protect vulnerable members from having to cast painful votes. Democrats argue that Republicans are being led by extreme elements in the party that don't just hate Congress, but hate all government.

President Obama, at times, gets flack from both sides for not getting more involved. The White House counters that the president has gotten involved, but it makes no difference when tea-party-influenced lawmakers view compromise as a dirty word.

There are other oft-cited sources for the grim mood. Lawmakers complain that there has been so little bipartisanship — even on small issues — that Congress has become polarized. They wax nostalgic about days when members from opposing parties had personal relationships, developed behind closed doors, that could grease the skids for deal-making.

That environment is gone, some argue.

Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) recently took to the floor to declare that the mood in Washington was frequently "nothing short of toxic." Webb is retiring next year.

Manchin blamed a culture of legislating as a political "team sport."

"We should be individually committed to doing the right thing," he said.

The super committee aimed to re-create some of that familiarity and opportunity for closed-door candor. Though it held occasional public meetings, the group regularly met privately. Members went out to dinner. They went bike riding together.

Still, its members could not find the will to compromise. As they met Monday in Sen. John F. Kerry's office for the last time, reporters continued to hover outside the door — but with more resignation than anticipation. The Capitol had none of the buzz of a place about to make history. With both chambers already out for the holiday, the hallways were largely left to tourists.

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