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Bob Franken: Meating of the alleged minds

We all know the cliché comparing lawmaking and sausage-making. It has become a hackneyed way to rationalize the messy process of politics. Sad to say, it falls far short of describing the rancid waste we get from the Washington grinder these days. For that, we can thank all those who cook up one unnecessary crisis after another, leaving nothing but foul choices. Simply put, they either don’t know what they’re doing or don’t care how poisonous their conduct is.

Case in point: We are looking over another abyss while our lawmakers do everything to jump off and take us with them. Once again, the imperative to increase the nation’s borrowing authority has slammed into demands for massive budget cutbacks. Both sides make arguments that  would seem to be no-brainers: President Barack Obama makes the obvious point that the United States of America cannot be allowed to go into financial default, nor be held hostage by GOP hardliners. “They will not,” he insists, “collect a ransom in exchange for not crashing the economy.”

But what about Republicans and their argument that federal overspending must be reversed? That certainly is not without merit.

Surely there is a recipe for compromise. Somehow, our leaders can figure out an agreement that avoids the national embarrassment of default while finally forcing the government to stop spending like a drunken sailor. Why does this always have to be a battle over whether to shred the social safety net? Why not take a hard look at the redundancies in our bureaucracy or whether we need all those agencies. Why not truly restructure our ridiculous tax system with all its loopholes?

What we get instead is a bitter menu of confrontation. Actually, there are two of them. The GOP offers only red meat, gutted social programs and ultimatums. That’s no worse than what some of the president’s allies are cooking up: They are proposing, in effect, nothing. Instead of taking on determined opponents, they operate on a pretense that he and they don’t have to deal with the other side. That great statesman Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, recommends the president act “without Congressional approval, if necessary.”

How cute. He and his buds are obviously trying to masquerade as hardball negotiators, so they speak of one-sided action by the chief executive. They cite the 14th Amendment’s stipulation that “The validity of the public debt of the United States ... shall not be questioned.” Of course, they ignore Article 1 of that very same Constitution, which endows Congress with the power “to borrow money on the credit of the United States.” The president can attempt a veto, but a unilateral move by the White House would, at the very least, cause such a legal and political tangle that the nation would immediately explode into a crisis of embarrassment. So of course he’ll bargain, somehow.

At least we can take some comfort in the fact that we can forget that nutty idea to create a trillion-dollar coin out of platinum, which a quirk in the law makes theoretically possible. The thinking, if you want to call it thinking, was that this new legal tender would be used to pay our bills. Happily, it was too cheesy for the administration, particularly since it was clear the Federal Reserve wasn’t about to accept the coin. That would be necessary for it to have any value. So, if they do mint such a platinum trinket, it won’t be useful. Maybe the NFL could use it for the Super Bowl coin toss.

The problem is that the heavy responsibilities of government are being handled these days by lightweights and the opportunists who take advantage of them. That may seem harsh, but many are not up to the task. It is confusing, and often chaotic. It is indeed like making sausage, but we need to demand that our elected officials get serious about dealing with our meaty problems.

Bob Franken is a former CNN correspondent. He can be contacted by email at