In D.C., foreign visitors wonder what’s happened to us |

They say that travel is a broadening experience, and that when we leave our home base, there’s always something we can learn. A trip to Washington, D.C., to participate in my daughter Katherine’s college Parents Weekend gave me a few lessons in what the world thinks about the recent shutdown of the American government.

Many of the people who are visiting the various tourist spots at this time of year aren’t Americans. Foreign travelers are excited to see such historic sites as the Jefferson Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery, the Air and Space Museum and the Lincoln Memorial. It was at the Lincoln Memorial that I got a firsthand understanding of how the world views the congressional gridlock that temporarily shut down all of the functions of the federal government.

Eavesdropping on a number of conversations, I got a pretty good idea of how visitors view Congress and the nation in general. All of the comments, from a variety of visitors, were pretty much the same. No one seemed to comprehend how the world’s greatest nation could go into a state of paralysis for two-plus weeks. One visitor from Italy said, “We have all of these crackpot groups in our country, and the U.S. isn’t doing much better.”
A group of Irish tourists recalled “the days of John F. Kennedy, when America was a great nation.” They were quick to point out that there were “few American leaders in the last 50 years, and the current group in Washington is without any direction.” There were many more comments, but the most revealing statement was made by a South American college student who quoted Lincoln’s famous line, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

The frank remarks from the visitors to our shores are similar to those echoing around the nation. At a time when the U.S. is expected to lead and stand out as a true democracy, we have instead sunk to an all-time low. Nothing in the Constitution says that a small minority has the right to turn government upside down and attempt to have its way by causing total legislative paralysis. While there’s no doubt that the Republican Party is getting the lion’s share of the blame, the Democrats have done their share of stupid things. In state government, where I spent over 20 years, a simple majority was all that was required to pass laws. In Washington, Senate Democrats have decided that in certain cases, there is a requirement of 60 votes to cut off debate. That 60-vote rule has contributed to the gridlock, and gives the Senate minority more power than it deserves.

The government shutdown caused the country to suffer billions of dollars in losses, both in the financial markets and in the business community. The U.S. is being forced to pay hundreds of millions more in interest charges, and businesses of all sizes have suffered mightily from the federal craziness. Any sane business people who want to expand their facilities have to think twice about whether such a move is practical.

It’s hard to believe that one political party can be so fractured, but the Republicans in Washington are now a splintered party, with no immediate hope that things will get better. Keep in mind that when the resolution to reopen the government was passed, more than 100 Republican members of the House voted against it. They knew that the damage to the nation would be mind-boggling, but they were determined to keep the government in lockdown under the false hope that President Obama would delay his signature health care plan.
Perhaps cooler heads will prevail when Congress returns, but we may face another shutdown soon, and the losers will be the American people more than the failed politicians.

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