Strange times in which we live.
Congress and President Barack Obama's administration continue to fail to forge agreement on basic budget matters. Budget approval was largely routine in the past. In the meantime, the tradition-bound Vatican has taken a huge step toward what could well be a path of reform with the first-ever selection of a Jesuit, from South America no less, as pope. Hours later, scientists said they've discovered a subatomic particle, called Higgs boson, that should help us better understand the creation of the universe.
In some ways, things in Washington, D.C., seem to get harder to understand by the day.
One day this week, Capitol Hill staffers were left standing in long lines in the rain outside the Dirksen Senate Office Building, waiting to be cleared by security, so that they could go to work. Word on the street was that the bottlenecks were because of mandatory budget cuts, also known as the "sequester." Of course, the staffers themselves are not to blame for the lack of agreement, but like the Americans they are paid to serve, they're beginning to suffer the consequences.
Take the budget plan unveiled this week by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. It was viewed as little changed from his previous proposals, predicated on a desire to reduce the national debt. He says it balances the budget in a decade and it includes a repeal of Obamacare. One might have thought that the sustainability of the sweeping health care legislation was settled in the presidential election held last November.
Reaction to the Ryan plan has been largely predictable, falling along party lines. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi says Ryan's plan would destroy jobs and put the "economic recovery at risk."
A rival plan was trotted out a day later by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and head of the Senate Budget Committee. The headline connected to her proposal was approximately $1 trillion in new tax revenues over a decade. Both the Ryan and Murray plans are seen as the latest attempts to jump-start the conversation where broad agreement has been elusive.
All of this as President Obama continues his so-called charm offensive, speaking on Capitol Hill with lawmakers in search of a budget solution. That follows his dinner out on the town with Republican senators last week.
What's strange about what's been going on? One thing is that Washington's dysfunctional behavior shows no sign of improvement. The next immediate deadline facing Congress and the Obama administration is the March 27 expiration of legislation to fund the government.
In another exercise that seemed to overlook the outcome of the election, as well as passage of the landmark Dodd-Frank legislation, the Senate Banking Committee this week held a hearing on the nomination of Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Republicans are blocking the confirmation, saying that they believe it should be structured not with a director, but with a commission. Democrats say this is an attempt to weaken the agency.
As one senator pointed out at the committee hearing, the enabling Dodd-Frank legislation was resoundingly approved by the House and Senate.
One argument in favor of the commission structure is that it makes execution of the agency's mission more sustainable. While the Obama administration supports the bureau's mission, one can imagine that might not always be the case, say if a conservative president were elected. As the fight goes on, Cordray continues to do his job despite the lack of a Senate confirmation vote, even with favorable reviews, based on comments expressed at the same hearing.
Meantime, polls indicate the public continues to view two of the three branches of federal government with increasing disdain.
Real Clear Politics says the average approval rating for President Obama is 48.5 percent, with a disapproval rating of 46.1 percent. While that is down recently, it is substantially more favorable than Congress gets. President Obama, of course, doesn't have to worry about facing another election.
As for those who do, for members of Congress, the average approval rating is a lowly 14.2 percent, with a disapproval score of 79.2 percent. If this were baseball, all of these players would have been sent back down to the minor leagues.
For the time being in Washington, strange might be the new normal.