Are we supposed to be grateful that Congress didn’t wreck the economy?

October 17, 2013

I guess we’re all supposed to feel relieved, happy and gratified that our alleged leaders in Washington have finally managed to approve reopening the government and keeping our country from defaulting on its debts.

The stock market loved it, with the Wilshire 5000, the broadest measure of U.S. stocks, reaching a record high Wednesday and extending it Thursday, when the S&P 500 also closed at a record high. The bond market loved it. The short-term Treasury market, which had been acting hinky as default moved from inconceivable to distinctly possible, loved it, too.

I don’t know about you, but I didn’t love what I saw. I’m relieved that we didn’t have a debt default, which would have made the damage from Lehman Brothers’ 2008 bankruptcy look like a rounding error. But I’m still angry about what I’ve just seen.

Why? Because we haven’t resolved any of the underlying issues or even gotten good-behavior pledges from the major players. By the end of this year or early next year, we could be back in debt-ceiling crisis mode again. We’ve called a brief timeout, but the game is still being played, and by the same rules.

Clearly, the most blame for this fiasco lies with the tea party types. But they wouldn’t have had the impact they had without their enablers in the Republican Party, who through either conviction or cowardice didn’t stand up to them until very late in the game.

And although the Democrats aren’t to blame for this latest debacle, they’ve been, collectively, no prizes. Democrats could have long since solved the problem of the big entitlement programs — Social Security and Medicare — that will eat us alive if left unchecked. But rather than tweak these programs, Democrats are defending them — and their current benefit levels — as though they were Holy Writ handed down by the Lord from Mount Sinai.

Then there’s the White House. Two years ago, during the debt-ceiling debacle in the summer of 2011, the Republican zealots managed to roll President Obama by getting him to agree to what has since become the sequester.

Then this year, we saw Obama proposing (publicly) to take military action against Syria, and proposing (semi-publicly) to nominate Larry Summers as head of the Federal Reserve. The Obama forces talked and spun and leaked, but at the last minute, faced with serious opposition, the president in both cases walked away.

If you were a tea party zealot, this history would encourage you to think that Obama could be rolled this time, too. In fact, had the tea party types gone after something other than Obamacare, they might have succeeded in extracting serious concessions.

In an ideal world, I would throw everyone in Washington out of office, even the good people, and start all over again with a new set. Unfortunately, I have no idea how to do that.

However, because I’m fundamentally an optimist — an optimist who’s deeply angry, but nevertheless an optimist — I like to think that our alleged leaders might have learned something from this debacle.

It might have dawned on the tea party people that maybe they’re not as right — or as bright — as they thought they were. It may have dawned on the Republican leaders that they should lead, regardless of the risk to their own political careers, because they have responsibilities to the country rather than just to themselves.

And it may have dawned on the Democrats in both Congress and the White House, who tend to go on about “root causes” when it comes to problems like poverty, that their unwillingness to tweak Social Security and Medicare or to challenge other runaway federal programs is the root cause of the anger that has given the tea party such outsized influence.

But, after all, we’re talking about Washington politicians, possibly the only group who is more self-involved and self-regarding than the people in my business.

Therefore, even though I’m now about to put my anger back in the cage where I normally keep it, I’m afraid that after a brief hiatus, all the players will go back to being themselves.

And that, of course, is the most enraging thought of all.

Sloan is Fortune magazine’s senior editor at large.

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