‘The Bart Simpsons of Congress’

About a year ago, the American Enterprise Institute’s Norm Ornstein, not exactly a raging leftist, said John Boehner and his team “are becoming the Bart Simpsons of Congress, gleeful at smarmy and adolescent tactics and unable and unwilling to get serious.”

That was May 2010. They’ve gotten considerably worse since. Hell, I’ve been watching “The Simpsons” for more than two decades, and I’m convinced Bart’s capacity for seriousness far exceeds anything we’ve seen from congressional Republicans.

At a certain level, the dust-up over the scheduling of President Obama’s Joint Session speech on the economy could have been a non-story. The White House wanted Wednesday; the Speaker’s office wanted Thursday. The White House, willing to oblige, goes with Boehner’s preference. No big deal.

But as American politics unravels before our eyes, this helps capture the painful stupidity that now dominates the process.

Any hopes that a kinder, gentler bipartisan Washington would surface once Congress returns after Labor Day were summarily dashed on Wednesday when President Obama and Speaker John A. Boehner clashed over, of all things, the date and time of the president’s much-awaited speech to the nation about his proposal to increase jobs and fix the economy.

In a surreal volley of letters, each released to the news media as soon as it was sent, Mr. Boehner rejected a request from the president to address a joint session of Congress next Wednesday at 8 p.m. — the same night that a Republican presidential debate is scheduled.

In an extraordinary turn, the House speaker fired back his own letter to the president saying, in a word, no. Might the president be able to reschedule for the following night, Sept. 8?

For several hours, the day turned into a very public game of chicken.

White House officials actually had to engage in talks with the Speaker’s office into the night, before announcing the change to Thursday.

Remember, this is just about picking the date for the speech. It’s like arguing about the shape of the table before sitting down for negotiations. What possible chance is there for Washington to approve meaningful economic legislation if there’s a dramatic showdown over scheduling? That’s a rhetorical question; the chances are zero.

Accounts differ as to exactly how this fiasco occurred, but it appears the White House consulted with congressional leaders before the announcement and, according to Democrats, chose Wednesday. Republican leaders didn’t object at the time, which the White House interpreted as acceptance. GOP officials then said they hadn’t actually agreed to Wednesday, leading to Boehner’s letter yesterday afternoon.

It was, according congressional historians, the first time in American history the president requested an audience with a Joint Session, only to have the Speaker balk.

By agreeing to Boehner’s preferred day, the White House at least prevents a prolonged argument about process. Because Washington rules dictate that there must be a “winner” in every dispute, the Speaker gets to gloat this morning, but the fact remains Boehner still looks small and petty, picking an unnecessary fight. That he claimed to be speaking “on behalf of the bipartisan leadership and membership of both the House and the Senate,” when he clearly was not, only makes him look slightly worse. If President Obama values being seen as “the adult in the room,” this little mess reinforced the perception.

But that doesn’t make yesterday’s developments any less ridiculous. If Americans wanted a responsible Congress, ready and willing to act in the nation’s interest, and able to work constructively in response to critical challenges, they made a tragic mistake in November 2010. Yesterday’s largely inconsequential fiasco will fade away soon enough, but it’s symbolic of a larger problem: voters elected far-right children to run the legislative branch of government.