My, what a week Congress has had! Quite the drama, eh? Impassioned speeches, nail-biting waits, posturing and preening for the cameras.
I wish I were better informed about this country's political history, because I'm pretty sure there's nothing new about this pageant. Maybe I could point to William Jennings Bryan's famous "Cross of Gold" speech in 1896 (in case you've forgotten, the issue then was whether to endorse the free coinage of silver at a ratio of silver to gold of 16 to 1, an inflationary measure aimed at increasing the amount of money in circulation and aiding cash-poor and debt-burdened farmers--yes, I had to look it up). You know it must be important when it shows up as a Jeopardy answer.
I contend that most of the rhetoric this week was aimed at impressing each Senator's and Representatives's constituency back home, because, sadly, most people haven't got a clue about what they were talking about. How many people had ever given the "debt ceiling" a moment's thought before this summer? Show of hands, please. Uh-huh, I thought so.
I'm not just venting. I actually have some qualifications to discuss this, because I used to work as a municipal finance consultant, and I was part of the team that kept the City of Philadelphia from bankruptcy in the 1980s. I attended meetings at Standard and Poor's and Moody's, so I know what a rating agency is, and how a rating affects the cost of borrowing money. I was also a staff member for a senatorial campaign in the 1990s, so I know something about what it takes to elect a candidate.
But I also know that many politicians don't communicate effectively. Sure, they trot out doom and gloom scenarios--and I won't say they aren't real possibilities--but I think the single biggest failing across the board, regardly of party affiliation, is the inability to translate the impact of federal policies on the individual voter. Maybe they did a better job than usual this time around, threatening that interest rates on just about everything would go up. But that doesn't mean that people understood why the U.S. government borrows money in the first place--and that you can't just stop paying the bills for money you've already spent.
Just this week I turned in a manuscript to my editor that features a Congressional race by a political newcomer; it will be published next August, in the thick of the political season. I do not identify the candidate's party affiliation, nor is he modeled on any real individual. I wrote about this because I wanted to explore why anyone chooses to run for office--and how far her or she, or his/her followers, will go to win an election. As we have seen this week, there is a lot of passion involved in politics, and a lot of conflict. What better subject for a book?
But in the real world, it gets harder and harder to find qualified candidates who are willing to put themselves through the relentless meat grinder of running for office and holding office. That's unfortunate, because, like it or hate it, this is the system we have in place. And what's more, we need a balanced mix of insiders and new blood to make it work.
Of course there's going to be a lot of head-butting, because what these elected representatives are talking about on the national stage affects all of us, whether we recognize it or not. And now the impact goes beyond our geographic boundaries, because we are part of a global economy. Of course we should care--and we should vote. I truly hope that those of each party who defend strong and polarizing positions do so out of conviction and a sincere desire to represent their constituents rather than an ego-driven need to be in the public spotlight.
I hope you recognized the title of this post as a part of a longer quote: "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." It's from Shakespeare's Macbeth. Let's hope that what our elected Congress accomplishes in the next few months comes out a little better than that.