Dana Milbank
Opinion writer August 2, 2011

We are in one of those awkward interludes in politics when leaders stop pummeling each other long enough to congratulate themselves on what fine statesmen they are.

“I want to thank my friend the majority leader for his work in getting this agreement over the finish line,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said of Harry Reid on the Senate floor Tuesday. “We may disagree a lot, but it’s never, ever personal, and . . . we’ll get together when the greater good is at stake.”

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

The Republican’s gushing extended to the man whose defeat he has made his top priority. “I also want to thank the president,” McConnell went on. “It’s a testament to the goodwill of those on both sides that we were able to reach this agreement.”

Reid stood to return the praise. “I appreciate the kind words that my counterpart, Mr. McConnell, has stated on the floor,” he said. “I appreciate my friend the Republican leader putting his arms around this idea I came up with.”

Not to interrupt this mutual back-patting session, but what have these gentlemen done to earn the kudos? Certainly, the debt-ceiling deal they struck was better than allowing the United States to become a deadbeat. But the thrust of their agreement is the opposite of leadership: They put the ship of state on autopilot.

Entitlement programs, tax-code reform and other big decisions will go to yet another quasi-independent panel, this one a “super-committee” of lawmakers. In the likely event they can’t agree, government spending would be dictated by automatic “triggers” and across-the-board cuts, known as “sequestration mechanisms,” that take decisions out of lawmakers’ hands. The balanced-budget amendment contemplated in the compromise could mean that lawmakers would permanently surrender power to formulas. The compromise, in other words, only confirms that the government is ungovernable.

Lawmakers in both parties defied their more ideological peers to endorse this plan by an overwhelming 74-26 in the Senate and 269-161 in the House, where Gabby Giffords’s surprise return added bipartisan warmth and fuzziness. Leaders took this as validation of their chaotic course.

“I know there are all kinds of pundits and commentators who talk about how the system is broken,” Reid said, celebrating his “remarkable” achievement. “But we did send a message to the world and to the American people that our great democracy is working.”

In this, McConnell concurred. “The push and pull Americans saw in Washington these past few weeks was not gridlock,” he maintained. “It was the will of the people working itself out and a political system that was never meant to be pretty.”

McConnell, who has denounced the Democrats loudly and daily, incongruously quoted Churchill’s line that “courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut independent, went further back than Churchill, claiming allegiance with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. He read from a column claiming that “the Framers would be pleased at the ‘spectacle.’ ”

But the Federalist Papers make no mention of the sort of hostage situation that unfolded in recent weeks. The Founders were silent on the rights of a small group of lawmakers, claiming they received marching orders from God, to bring the nation to the edge of default. The Constitution doesn’t specifically mention negotiating walkouts, Satan sandwiches and deeming budgets into law without votes.

It’s equally possible Madison and Hamilton would have thought today’s lawmakers weak for postponing their argument over tax increases by hiding behind a committee, or that the framers would be puzzled by lawmakers’ goal of $2.1 trillion in deficit reduction over a decade – when Republican and Democratic lawmakers on the Bowles-Simpson commission had agreed to nearly twice that much.

Certainly, the Founders would have been amused by their successors’ habit of denouncing legislation before supporting it. “Everything is not okay, and it won’t be okay until we have the courage and leadership to institute tax reform,” said Sen. Mark Udall (D-N.M.) before casting a “yea” vote.

Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) denounced part of the compromise as “reckless” and “close to violating our oath of office” — before voting in favor. That was nearly as courageous as presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s denunciation of the compromise — after passage was assured.

Despite all this, Reid still pronounced himself “hopeful that the spirit of compromise that has taken root in Washington over the last several days will endure.”

Senators then prepared for a five-week congressional recess, leaving unresolved a dispute that has shut down the Federal Aviation Administration and put 75,000 people out of work. It is a fitting coda: The federal government is on autopilot, and the FAA is grounded.

danamilbank@washpost.com