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Commentary: America cannot afford just a do-nothing Congress now

SAN DIEGO -- This week many Americans were presented with more incontrovertible evidence that while our financial system may be on the fritz, our political system is just plain broken.

It was not surprising that the stock market cascaded nearly 800 points in a single day after the House of Representatives failed to approve a $700 billion bailout package. Even before the votes were tallied, Wall Street had already figured out that Congress doesn't have the skill or the will to address a problem of this magnitude.

How could it? In order to tackle a tough problem, it helps to have a history of tackling other tough problems. But, on that score, this Congress is out of practice. It has already dodged immigration, Social Security, Iraq, the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind and other issues.

As to why the bailout failed, it's not just the usual afflictions: the special interests, the polarization of our politics, the refusal of our leaders to make hard choices, etc.

It is also that Congress can't seem to grasp the concept of urgency. The market was demanding immediate action -- better a timely solution than a perfect one, financial leaders said -- while people such as Democrat Chris Dodd, chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee, or Republican Jeb Hensarling, one of the chief opponents in the House, were insisting that lawmakers had to take the time to do this right. And after bungling the bailout, and crashing the market, Congress went on a two-day holiday.

Then there is the fact that many members of Congress appear by their actions to think that a crisis presents them with an opportunity to stick their opponents with the blame and stoke partisan fires to help win the next election.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi accomplished both with a toxic speech delivered near the end of debate on the bailout. According to Pelosi, this was legislation that "tells us only the costs of the Bush administration's failed economic policies -- policies built on budgetary recklessness, on an anything-goes mentality, with no regulation, no supervision, and no discipline in the system." Pelosi spoke too soon when she said, "Today we will act to avert this crisis, but informed by our experience of the past eight years with the failed economic leadership ... we choose a different path." And she really got ahead of herself when she boasted: "In the new year, with a new Congress and a new president, we will break free with a failed past and take America in a new direction to a better future."

It sounds as though Pelosi treated as a foregone conclusion that the bill was going to pass and decided to get in a few partisan licks with a gratuitous attack coming just a few weeks before the elections. Certainly, many Republicans already had planned to vote against the bailout -- along with nearly 100 Democrats, in fact -- and so Pelosi's speech wasn't solely responsible for killing the deal. This is as loopy as when Democrats blamed John McCain for stalling the bailout negotiations last week. But nor was Pelosi's inappropriate screed in any way helpful at a time when members of both parties were talking about the need for a bipartisan solution. Besides, as House speaker, it's hard to believe Pelosi couldn't arm-twist her way to changing a dozen Democratic votes, were she so inclined.

On the other side of the aisle, Republicans didn't perform any better. Two-thirds of them voted against the bailout. Those on the right got sucked into the echo chamber of conservative talk radio, where the prevailing view for the last couple of weeks has been that a bailout would be tantamount to dabbling in socialism. Some people suggested that banks and other financial institutions should just be allowed to fail.

How childish. If right-wing talk show hosts and other critics had problems with the specifics of the administration's plan, they should have proposed something better. But they were much too cavalier in putting off what many of them must know will have to be done eventually, in some form or another. With credit lines running dry and banks failing, Americans don't have the luxury of doing nothing.

All the more reason they shouldn't put up with a do-nothing Congress.

Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is