The House Republican strategy to link a normally routine increase in the nation's debt limit with a crusade to slash spending has already had a high cost, threatening the nation's credit rating and making the United States look dysfunctional and incompetent to the rest of the world.
But that's not the most awful thing about it.
What's even worse is this entirely artificial, politician-created crisis has kept government from doing what taxpayers expect it to do, which is to solve problems that citizens care about.
The most obvious problem is unemployment. The best way short-term to drive the deficit down is to spur growth and get Americans back to work. Has anyone noticed that Americans with jobs can provide for their families, put money into the economy -- and, oh yes, pay taxes that increase revenues and thus cut the deficit?
There are some entirely obvious steps government can take. Ramping up public works spending is a twofer: It creates jobs upfront and provides the nation's businesses and workers the ways and means to boost their own productivity down the road.
Wise infrastructure spending can save energy. And when public works investments are part of metropolitan plans for smarter growth, they can also ease congestion, reduce commuter times and give our citizens back valuable minutes or hours they waste in traffic. If you want a pro-family policy, this is it.
State and local budgets all across the country are a shambles. Teachers, police, firefighters, librarians and other public servants are being laid off. As the New York Times' David Leonhardt pointed out recently, even as the private economy has been adding jobs, if too slowly, state and local governments have hemorrhaged about half a million jobs in two years.
President Obama knows this. "As we've seen that federal support for states diminish, you've seen the biggest job losses in the public sector," he said in his July 11 news conference. "So my strong preference would be for us to figure out ways that we can continue to provide help across the board."
So why not do it? "I'm operating within some political constraints here," Obama explained, "because whatever I do has to go through the House of Representatives."
Excuse me, Mr. President, but if you believe in this policy, why not propose it and fight for it? Leadership on jobs is your central job right now. Let the Republicans explain why they want more cops and teachers let go, or local taxes to rise.
There is also an extension of the payroll tax reduction instituted last year and of unemployment insurance. Why so little discussion of how balky Republicans have been on this Obama tax cut, or how resistant they have been for further help to the unemployed? They won't raise taxes on the rich to balance the budget but are utterly bored by relief for the middle class or the jobless. Isn't that instructive?
And while we have been parsing the Rube Goldberg complexities of Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell's procedural contortions to get us out of a battle we should never have gotten into, we haven't been discussing how to reform the No Child Left Behind law.
It's true that some good people in Congress are trying to figure out a way forward on education reform. That's a far more important national conversation than whether tea party Republicans understand the elementary laws of economics. But you wouldn't know it because those who care about the substance of governing never get into the media. You get a lot of attention -- and are sometimes proclaimed a hero -- if you say something really dumb about the debt ceiling.
Then there is the coming debate over a "balanced budget" amendment to the Constitution that would limit government spending to 18 percent of GDP and require a two-thirds vote to raise taxes. It's an outrageous way for members of Congress to vote to slash Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, aid to education and a slew of other things, lock in low taxes on the rich -- and never have to admit they're doing it. It's one of the most dishonest proposals ever to come before Congress, and I realize that's a high standard.
Every member of Congress who got us into this debt-ceiling fight should be docked six months pay. They wasted our time on political posturing instead of solving problems. Better yet, the voters might ponder firing them next year. This could do wonders for national productivity.
E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).