What do you do in the face of looming disaster? In the movie Animal House, the character of Otter memorably suggested the situation "absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody's part."
That was meant to be funny, of course, the juvenile cut-ups of a frat house that refuses to take responsibilities seriously. But less amusing are the antics of conservatives who decided to conduct their own futile and stupid gesture this week in the form of the "cut, cap and balance" proposal that would take $100 billion from this year's budget, cap future budgets to a percentage of the country's economic activity and require a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
How dead is this plan? President Barack Obama has already promised to veto it because it sets such unrealistic spending caps in future years. The damage that could be done to programs that benefit children, the middle class and seniors is incalculable not only because of the sheer enormity of the spending reductions required but because the proposal leaves all the specifics blank.
The plan is so dead on arrival in the Senate that it can only be seen as slightly worsening the debt by its printing costs alone. That members might spend one millisecond considering this nonsense can only lower the public's already rock-bottom regard for Congress, which is now seen as principally to blame for the debt ceiling crisis, according to the latest poll.
Even those who might normally back spending caps and balanced budget amendments have got to be frustrated with this empty diversion. It simply gives politicians on both sides of the aisle a chance to record an anti-spending vote without any meaning whatsoever.
The reality is that Congress is facing a crisis only because the normally routine move of raising the debt ceiling is being blocked by Republicans. Too often lost in the discussion is the fact that raising the debt ceiling does not by itself cause more spending, but failing to raise the debt ceiling is certain to expand the deficit.
Even so, Congress doesn't have to tie its hands to do something meaningful about the deficit right this minute. Republicans need only find the political courage to embrace compromise and take the president up on his offer of a "grand deal" involving trillions of dollars in spending cuts and, to a lesser extent, tax reform that closes wasteful loopholes and requires a greater contribution from the wealthy.
Alas, the odds seem greater that at the 11th hour, the GOP will instead support some version of Sen. Mitch McConnell's plan to dump the responsibility of raising the debt limit with the White House and require Congress to produce a super majority to revoke it. While that strategy has a whiff of Delta House antics about it, too, at least it gets the nation past the current crisis.
What Washington needs right now are grownups along the lines of the Senate's bipartisan Gang of Six, which has been meeting for months in an effort to produce a workable budget compromise. It doesn't need partiers of either the tea or frat house variety who prefer empty gestures to actual governance. Congress has a unique opportunity to reduce the deficit — but only if they take the responsible step of both raising revenue (as Republicans oppose) and reducing spending on entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid (as many Democrats have fought equally hard against).
Advocating for only half that equation is not a principled stand but an empty gesture since only a compromise can possibly meet with Mr. Obama's approval and pass a divided Congress. It's the last refuge of politicians who seek not to solve problems but to curry favor with certain partisan factions and political supporters.
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking, and the U.S. is inching closer to a potentially disastrous credit default. There is no Dean Wormer to plague, no Neidermeyer on whom to take revenge, only the American public to victimize. They are unlikely to find Congressional bloviation especially entertaining under the circumstances.