Can Congress come back? Can George Bush? The executive and legislative branches have joined hands and jumped into a sea of raging public disapproval of government. Bush made the mistake of thinking he could govern with slogans as easily as he had campaigned on them. Members of Congress feared the electorate would never forgive them for exercising common sense, although poll after poll had told them that voters would accept higher taxes if they were applied to deficit reduction.
Contempt for Congress can be read in the reproachful stares of the tourists who sit in the galleries because they are locked out of other public buildings.
Congress's failure to pass a budget resolution is the problem, White House operators tell callers. Pictures of tots sobbing at the White House gates and Boy Scouts frowning at the base of the off-limits Washington Monument make Congress look bad. But Bush, who vetoed a continuing resolution to keep the government going, doesn't look that much better.
House Democratic leaders, for reasons they have yet to explain, accepted a budget agreement that offended the party's major constituencies.
Their troops in the House rebelled. Bitter things were said about Speaker Thomas S. Foley. Liberals compared him to the British colonel in "The Bridge on the River Kwai," the Alec Guinness character who got so carried away by the process he failed to realize he was collaborating with the enemy.
Last Friday, they joined right-wing Republicans, who also abandoned their leader in voting against the bill, for entirely different reasons, of course. Bush had pleaded with them on television and in person for help on a "bipartisan budget." His chief of staff, John H. Sununu, got out his truncheon and laid about in a way that made some nostalgic for "the good old days of Donald Regan."
The president, who has had such phenomenal luck with Francois and Margaret and Helmut on the perilous matter of the Persian Gulf, could not persuade Newt Gingrich, his party whip in the House, to give him a vote.
Too late the House leadership saw the folly of its ways and put out word that they too hated the budget agreement. They passed a continuing resolution, one that would have at least kept the machinery of government rolling. Bush promptly and righteously vetoed it. Not for him "business as usual," although it was his studied ignoring of the deficit, his religious crusade against new taxes, that had done so much to fashion the crisis.
The mortified Democrats tried to override his veto and spent Saturday raucously failing. The day was redeemed only by the apparition in the well of Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Calif.), a man of daily sartorial splendor, who escalated to magnificence in white tie and tails. He approached the podium to cheers and wolf whistles and begged his brothers and sisters to get on with the voting so he could go to his son's wedding.
The tourists took it all in. On a sparkling Sunday afternoon, Bill Erickson, a tall, sandy-haired engineer from Chicago, his wife Betty nodding vigorously in agreement, passed judgments on the architects of the debacle. "I watched the House yesterday, and they were like a crew of kids out of control. I went to the Senate and they had five people on the floor -- they don't even come to hear each other speak. If this is normal, maybe we should do something different and elect people who care about their jobs."
It is this attitude that terrifies incumbents. But the Ericksons, "independents who vote Republican," aren't sure whom to blame for the closed museums. "I'm not sure if he is right or wrong," he said of Bush, "but he did it, and he did it to a lot of people. It was just a move to visualize the effect."
While the Ericksons were assessing their leaders, the Democrats were regrouping. Rep. Sam Gejdenson of Connecticut said, "We decided to be Democrats." On the backs of envelopes they had jotted down a few thoughts about reducing Medicare costs, raising the taxes of the rich. Foley presented the sketch to the caucus. Huzzahs followed, and Foley smiled for the first time in four days. The new budget passed at dawn.
The whole problem was trundled over to the Senate, where it was as if none of the agony, embarrassment, disruption and yawning chaos had ever been.
The Democrats quavered and havered in their caucus. Some incumbents with House challengers lamented that they might have to vote against the new budget because their rivals had. They wanted assurance that Republicans would support it, so they would not be naked to a charge by Bush that they had once again passed a tax-increase measure over his protest. Republicans hung back from doing the right thing.
It is as if Alice Roosevelt's cynical dictum, "No good deed goes unpunished," had become the law of the land.