WASHINGTON - This is the week to be or not to be, a time when government -- at least those we elect to run it -- will perform responsibly or force us to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous political maneuvering. With apologies to Hamlet, I'm betting on the bloodletting.
Sequestration, a word that actually sounds a bit Shakespearean, may or may not be the overriding concern of the common citizen, but it certainly should be if our supreme leader and the media are correct about its dire consequences, which President Barack Obama finally got around to emphasizing a scant few days before the executioner's ax is set to fall. That, of course, is Friday, March 1, when an ill-advised, draconian effort to cut spending, adopted in 2011, will take effect. It requires huge, indiscriminate cuts in national programs from defense to food stamps.
It remains to be seen how quickly and at what impact to economic stability the billions ordered deleted from spending will have. Will it result in quick, massive layoffs and devastation to vital services, as the White House and its Democratic allies contend, or will it cause only a slight tremor, as Republican anti deficit hawks are gambling? Flip a coin on this one, folks.
There is one certainty in all this tension. This mess is a product of an increasingly dysfunctional federal government. That includes both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, from Capitol Hill to the place where Obama sleeps in what it has seemed to me to be a near-somnambulant state on this subject until just recently when someone or something awakened him to the dangers of doing nothing. Then he went about trying to scare the hell out of us all.
As hard as the president has tried to stir up some angst with a series of bully-pulpit appearances around the country, surveys have shown that the national excitement level is significantly low, bombarded as Americans have been by one similar crisis after another. It isn't a stretch to say Americans are fed up with all the dire predictions, accurate or not.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon managers are running around screaming like banshees, governors are voicing uncontrolled fear about the damage to their budgets, and frequent flyers foresee longer security lines and flight cancellations. The catch warning of the day comes from liberal economists, who warn that layoffs that might further wound the economy. Their conservative colleagues pooh-pooh the drama.
Line these guys up end-to-end and you would never reach a conclusion, at least not one you could count on the sadness in all this is what it says about democracy, that most imperfect system. It's normally better than anything else when not allowed to disintegrate into a combination of anarchy and polarization. Gridlock, not uncommon in the system throughout our history, has reached new heights. At one time, compromise was the life's blood of functional politics.
We have only ourselves to blame. We the people have elected those with the most money to spend, the most radical ideas, the least sensible and the most absolutist positions we could find. The nature of serving in Congress these days is to survive,whatever it takes, even if that is contrary to statecraft. An office holder in Congress now rarely, if ever, offends a powerful special interest -- one that provides the largesse for continued "service" -- or is ideologically pure or politically correct and tolerates nothing else. In other words, no one thinks for himself, clearly not outside the accepted proverbial parameters. He or she rationalizes this dysfunction as good for us all. What we the people really want done is nothing, the argument goes, from as little government as that takes.
So here we are in the "to be or not to be" week, poised on the brink, wondering about our fate. Will Obama and the Democrats be correct and the sky fall or will the Republican predictions of better things for better life through sequestration come true? Or maybe some of both?
God forbid that there would be a way out of this nonsense, one that resulted from a well thought-out bargain between those we elect to intelligently resolve such messes but who just make matters worse. Stay tuned.
Dan K. Thomasson is the former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service