Congress has reached a new low in its standing with Americans. The tea party is losing support. House Speaker John Boehner's personal approval rating has dropped to 29 percent, only eight months after he and his fellow Republicans took control of the chamber. The reason -- or at least one of the causes -- ought to be obvious. Congress has forgotten how to govern.
Americans of different beliefs may want different things from government: free-market health care or government-provided health care; gun-control laws or not; environmental protection or not. And it's not black or white; beliefs occupy places along a continuum of opinions about the proper role of government.
It is safe to say, though, that virtually all Americans want competence in government -- a sense that the country is in adult hands. And since adults understand that not everyone always gets his own way, most expect to see sensible compromises that maintain the country's economy and its international leadership role.
That is no longer happening. Both major parties have been guilty of a new kind of political self-absorption, but the modern Republican Party -- by its own acknowledgment -- bears the larger share of responsibility. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., put it bluntly: The Republicans' single most important goal is to ensure that President Obama is a one-term president. He said it more than once.
What about shepherding the economy back to health? What about a responsible debt ceiling debate? What about defeating al-Qaida? What about, yes, health care reform, a critical subject for this country? Republicans could have sought to improve the Democrats' health care legislation; instead, they merely sought to sabotage it.
It is surprising only that anyone could be surprised at Congress' abysmal reputation. A new Ap-GfK poll put Congress' approval rating at a pathetic 12 percent, its lowest ever in that poll. Of course Americans are disgusted. Congress is not governing, it is posturing for the next election.
Responsible adults don't expect to get their way in everything. What they expect is a chance for their voices to be heard and, perhaps, to influence the direction of an issue. That's how a country as large and diverse as this one survives: It encourages buy-in from those on the losing side of a question by ensuring their involvement and their chance to win greater influence in the next election. But, in the meantime, government does its work.
Today, government isn't working. There is little respect and less affection for those who hold different political beliefs. Members -- especially those who count on tea party support -- play relentlessly to their absolutist factions -- those who abhor compromise -- while giving little thought to the nation's greater interest.
In all this, there are two comforting thoughts. With only a 12 percent approval rating, there is a lot of room for Congress to improve. The other is that, if it won't, there is room for it to fall even farther. If that happens, the people who pay their salaries will have plenty of reason to turn them out of office in 2012.