D.C. mood: doom, disgust, disbelief
Ground zero of the debt crisis might be House Speaker John Boehner's call center in a corner of the Capitol, where five staff members have as many as 300 people on hold at a time.
The New York Times
WASHINGTON — Ground zero of the debt crisis might be House Speaker John Boehner's call center in a corner of the Capitol, where five staff members have as many as 300 people on hold at a time. "Diane from Oregon" managed to get through Thursday to tell the center's director, Thomas Andrews, that Boehner should "cut spending now."
Andrews, 24, thanked her and then checked to see how long her wait time had been. "Oh, it's actually down to 30 minutes," he said, cheered that it was not an hour and a half. Quickly, he returned to work, where the rest of an astonishing deluge — 15,000 voice mails and 30,000 emails a day — cried out for his attention.
If the rest of the country thinks that Washington, D.C., has gone mad this summer, that is pretty much the view in this bewildered capital, too, even in Boehner's overwhelmed call center.
Among bar patrons at the Old Ebbitt Grill worried about stock portfolios, tourists anxious about disability checks and current and former policymakers stunned by congressional paralysis, the mood was described variously as one of doom, disgust and disbelief.
"I never saw anything like this, and I never thought I would see anything like this," said Laurence Meyer, a former Federal Reserve governor who has been fielding calls to his research firm, Macroeconomic Advisers, from worried hedge-fund clients. "I never appreciated how dysfunctional our political system is."
Tourists who have come from around the world to see messy American democracy in action are watching far more mess than they ever expected. "You guys are nuts," said Joseph Eastwood, 44, a Toronto accountant waiting in the Capitol Visitor Center for a tour last week. "Instead of building the country, you're destroying it."
A German tourist standing nearby was more tactful but was nonetheless perplexed as he tried to teach his two teenagers about the scale of U.S. debt.
"They are not quite understanding the sum of money borrowed," said Peter Radewahn, 54, director of a Bonn lobbying group. (The United States has about $14 trillion in debt, which is 99.5 percent of its yearly economic output. Germany has $2.85 trillion in debt, or 80 percent of its output.) Radewahn said he did not want to say more because he was a guest in America and wished to be diplomatic.
At the Washington National Zoo on Saturday, Dean Thompson, 53, a Republican and a mechanical engineer visiting from Augusta, Ga., was filled with disdain for lawmakers of both parties on Capitol Hill. "They're playing with people's savings is what they're doing," he said. "It's like a game to them."
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., fumed Friday that although Boehner, R-Ohio, was throwing "piece after piece of red meat to his right-wing lions" — that is, tea-party-allied Republicans opposed to raising the debt limit — they were never sated.
Few could match the scorn last week of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who, quoting a Wall Street Journal editorial, derided the "tea-party hobbits." Sen. Rand Paul, of Kentucky, a tea-party-allied Republican, later retorted: "I'd rather be a hobbit than a troll."
Beyond the sniping of lawmakers, this legislative crisis has reached deeper into the layers of D.C., perhaps even more than the protracted debate over health care did. Much of what is occurring in Congress may be incomprehensible, but the basic issue — the United States needs to increase the limit on its credit card or not be able to pay its bills — is understood.
"I get people stopping me around the Capitol more, asking what's going to happen," said Kelly O'Donnell, Capitol Hill correspondent for NBC, who said she was averaging about four hours of sleep a night. "A lot of kids ask, which is interesting."
Weighing in from Chicago was its newly elected mayor, Rahm Emanuel, Obama's incendiary former White House chief of staff, who, had he been in his old job, would have been engaged in hand-to-hand combat.
What did he make of what was going on in Washington? "My basic point is, look, your country requires you to take responsibility and understand what an honest compromise is," he said.
At the Old Ebbitt Grill, across the street from the Treasury Department, Cory Carlson, 27, an account executive for the EMC, the technology giant, was at the bar Thursday with friends.
Asked about the chaos on Capitol Hill, Carlson said that the health of the economy depended on Congress raising the debt limit and that he was worried about his investments. "Don't get me started," he said.
In front of the Treasury building Friday, Margaret McCoy, 64, a Democrat visiting from Pembroke, N.C., said she was worried, too — about her government disability checks.
"I'm fed up with it, just fed up with it," she said, speaking of Congress. "If their checks were cut like they said ours might be cut, I wonder how they would feel."
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