Throw the Politicians, Journalists, and Lobbyists Out of Washington

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Watching the debt ceiling debate makes you think everyone in D.C. has forgotten there is a country to run beyond the Beltway

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AP

Remember that famous scene at the end of the movie The Untouchables where the crooked judge in Al Capone's case switches juries so as to ensure a fair prosecution of the gangster? Remember how immediately that changes the tone and tenor of that story? Wouldn't it be great if there were some great force in America today who was wise and powerful enough to choreograph the same sort of switch on behalf of the American people? 

Out would go the current crop of federal lawmakers. Out would go their staff members and lobbyists. Out would go all the Washington reporters who have been covering the debt/deficit debacle. The whole bright, shrieking lot of them. Poof. Gone. And in their place would come to D.C. other smart people, from beyond the Beltway, breathers of fresh air, as yet unsullied by the partisan swamp, to make (and explain) the deal we all know needs to get done.

I live roughly 1,500 miles from Capitol Hill. I have the luxury of watching the disaster from afar. And the view from here of what has transpired in Washington over the past week-- from the childish blowup of negotiations last Friday between President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner to this Friday's grisly rendering of a doomed House bill -- is simply appalling. No wonder people think less of Congress than at any time since Watergate.

It is not just a crisis of party or a failure of leadership. It's not just the corrupting influence of money. It's not just zealotry in the guise of patriotism. It is all these things mixed together in stifling summer heat to create a fog that has enveloped Washington; a thick, toxic cloud that has taken from our elected officials their ability, or their willingness, to see straight. They are under a spell, almost all of them, and it's killing the rest of us.

Lost in Washington's heat and fog is perspective -- the context and clarity that comes from the outside looking in. That's why the tea party freshmen have been so strident, vocal and frustrated since coming to Washington. Only 18 months on the job, they haven't yet had time to be pared down into the party leaders they one day hope to be. So they rail against the machine (that the object of their railing is disastrously bad policy makes it no less real).

Journalists, too, seem lost. Sure, there has been a great deal of brave coverage of the debt  crisis. But there's been some trash, too. Crisis coverage seems caught betwixt and between; failing to identify with clarity the sources of the problem and failing to adequately convey to our elected officials the utter mortification the American people feel about what's happening. Paul Krugman just wrote about the former. The latter is proven by the conduct of Congress. 

People in Washington writing about what people in Washington are doing, or planning to do, to other people in Washington while employing rules and ethics unique to Washington. That's one way in which the rest of America perceives how the great political battle is being played out. The intrigue. The suspense. The drama. It plays great inside the Beltway. You can hear it in the quickened voices of the correspondents and in 140 characters on Twitter.

But to most of the rest of the country it's just political blather. We have a debt problem and a deficit problem. And we need to solve both for the sake of our children. We are ready to deal and deal "grandly" and not just on the margins. Poll after poll reveals this to be true. True and sensible and good for the country. Because we have reached this consensus, we have no patience for the fog of Washington's war. We want it to clear. We want the jury switched.

Not for the first time, the American people are out ahead of their so-called leaders. Usually, the matter can wait until the elected catch up or are booted out of office. This time, the matter cannot. From a distance, we see the fog of war that has enveloped Washington. We hear the screaming from the ramparts. Yet we are unmoved. What we want is the deal we've reached with one another to be formalized by the people we pay to do such things in our name.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic, 60 Minutes' first-ever legal analyst, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. He is also chief analyst for CBS Radio News and has won a Murrow Award as one of the nation's leading legal journalists. More

Cohen is the winner of the American Bar Association’s 2012 Silver Gavel Award for his Atlantic commentary about the death penalty in America and the winner of the Humane Society’s 2012 Genesis Award for his coverage of the plight of America’s wild horses. A racehorse owner and breeder, Cohen also is a two-time winner of both the John Hervey and O’Brien Awards for distinguished commentary about horse racing.

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