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We all lose in Congress' game playing

Oh the games they play.

You might have thought, back in February, that things were getting weird in Washington when Chris Lee took his shirt off.

It seemed downright goofy when that Weiner guy got into the self-portrait act.

But nobody's laughing these days about the antics of Congress.

It's been a year of gamesmanship and showmanship at the Capitol as lawmakers pushed us to the brink not once, not twice, but at least four times in downright disgusting displays of politics over policy.

Remember back in March and April, when we dusted off that list from 1995 of national parks and "non-essential" federal workers who would be left hanging in what appeared, twice, to be looming government shutdowns?

The politicians averted their self-made crisis in a last-minute deal, then took to the airwaves to say how pleased they were with themselves.

The games were far from over, and Congress, tone deaf to the displeasure the rest of us still felt, took the country to the brink again in August over the debt ceiling as a downgrade brewed.

We went on without a sterling rating from Standard & Poor's, but there's no doubt the congressional turmoil put a dent in the American psyche.

If we had confidence in Congress before that display of posturing, it melted away in the hot summer battle.

Not even a supercommittee could make us believe they could get their act back together again. When the bipartisan committee's deadline for a deficit plan came and went without a deal, there was barely a peep of surprise from regular folks.

We've come to expect little else but failure.

Those in Congress, however, needed a lecture -- complete with posters and a plain message, "Congress Hits Rock Bottom" -- to point out just how unlikable they had become.

That was left to a senator from Colorado, Michael Bennet, who pointed out that a New York Times-CBS poll released in October pegged Congress' approval rating at 9 percent -- lower than the rating for Paris Hilton, banks and the IRS.

Only Fidel Castro scored lower in Bennet's roundup of results from various polls.

"Sometimes, I get the feeling that people around here actually don't think the American people are watching this screaming match or watching the disagreement or watching the political games," Bennet said on the floor at the time. "But they are. They know exactly what's going on here."

It was a brilliant moment of grandstanding -- the type of gimmicky sound byte that so perfectly illustrated how Americans felt that it echoed across the country.

But it did little to address the problems, and the politicians kept at it, right up until they had to get home to their families and fundraising and holiday cheer.

That's where they left us last week, on the eve of Christmas Eve, once again in a showdown averted at the last moment with a short-term deal -- this time over taxes and jobless benefits.

They're playing games of political chicken while the rest of us are worried about how to make a stagnant paycheck stretch or how to hold onto our jobs.

Meanwhile, lawmakers, as they dart from one nearsighted crisis to the next, let the long-term problems slide. They'll arrive back in Washington in January only to face the same predicament as they left behind last week.

It's hard to see how the new year -- with November's election not far in the distance -- will help mend this gaping divide of partisanship that has infected Washington.

Maybe they'll finally realize that with these types of games -- full of bluster and brinkmanship -- we all lose.