Last week's collapse of the painstakingly crafted immigration legislation offers a classic illustration of why the hard work doesn't seem to get done in Washington anymore.
There's no reward for political courage; no incentive to compromise; no overriding sense that accomplishment is not just a goal but a responsibility. For too many lawmakers, obstructing a sweeping proposal is far preferable to supporting one that may be unpopular with voters or interest groups.
That the Senate's so-called grand bargain should have met this swift end is particularly tragic because doing nothing about the nation's broken immigration system is perhaps the worst possible outcome.
Twelve million people are here but not here, struggling to maneuver around ever-tightening laws and vulnerable to the worst possible exploitation. Huge segments of the economy, particularly agriculture, have grown dependent on migrant labor and are increasingly destabilized by the inability to depend on workers showing up because they can't get visas or are afraid of being caught without them. And the U.S.-Mexican border, for all the talk of fences, remains a sieve, and a messy, environmentally damaged one at that. Desperately poor people determined to create a better life for their families are cruelly enticed to take enormous risks because there seems no other alternative - and often they get through.
Reviving the Senate bill depends on two unlikely allies: President Bush, who made a thoughtful pitch for the measure in a radio address taped for airing yesterday, but whose influence is waning even within his party, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, whose clumsy attempts to bully that balky body made a very difficult job harder. Together, though, the two could be formidable. They could run interference for the bipartisan band of centrists that worked for months to shape a compromise that was widely predicted to win Senate approval.
No one claimed that bill was perfect. There is no perfect answer to this problem, nor will there be a one-time fix. Figuring out how to control the borders to effectively and humanely manage the flow of immigrants is an ongoing proposition that will require constant readjustment even after legislation is enacted.
First, though, this bit of hard work must get done.