Elected officials in the nation's capital have spent the past several weeks demonstrating that they can't do the jobs voters sent them there to do. On Capitol Hill, lawmakers got into an extended spat that shut down much of the government for 16 days and threatened to turn Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew into the world's biggest deadbeat. Meanwhile, the Obama administration launched a website for the new federally operated health insurance exchanges that failed epically, with so many design flaws and technical problems that it may take weeks to reach a basic level of reliability.
Granted, the government shutdown and the HealthCare.gov meltdown happened for very different reasons. The former was a result of a cynical and ill-conceived gambit by House Republicans, who tried to force changes in Obamacare that they didn't have the votes to win. The latter stemmed from the administration's inept management of a complex project, a problem exacerbated by political imperatives that repeatedly trumped technical ones.
The overarching message to the public, however, is the same in both instances: Your leaders are incompetent.
And the people are listening. Gallup reports that Congress' approval rating sank to an abysmal 11% during the shutdown, after rebounding slightly from its record low of 10% in February. President Obama, meanwhile, has seen his approval rating slide steadily this year to 39%, nearing the low point of his tenure. Dwindling faith in government has contributed to a pessimism about the economy that discourages consumer spending, the lifeblood of U.S. growth. According to surveys, the relentless stream of bad news out of Washington last month coincided with sharp drops in consumers' hopes for the economy and their confidence about the future.
The administration can undo some of the damage by fixing HealthCare.gov soon, giving people ample time to shop before policies are supposed to go into effect Jan. 1. But Washington faces another potential shutdown and default early next year, when the temporary measures enacted in mid-October expire. The best way for lawmakers to avoid a replay of last month's debacle would be to strike a deal before the end of the year that keeps federal agencies operating and the Treasury paying its bills.
That's easier said than done, considering how far apart House Republicans and Senate Democrats are — and how polarized their constituents are too. Yet the lesson of Tuesday's gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia may be that ideologues are in less demand than leaders who can work across the political aisle to get things done. Having failed in three previous attempts to reach a bipartisan "grand bargain" on taxes and entitlements, lawmakers need to show their constituents that they can at least handle the simpler task of funding the government without resorting to yet another manufactured crisis. We're not asking for miracles here, just competence.