There are times when everyone in Washington puts their best face forward and projects optimism. As unemployment insurance drops out from under millions of Americans, evictions are no longer banned and even post offices have become an endangered species, this is not one of them.
Lawmakers are locked in bitter and increasingly personal negotiations over what comes next to help struggling Americans staring down a pandemic. No solution is in sight. A federal supplement to unemployment insurance expired a week ago, as did a ban on kicking renters out of homes they can’t afford at the moment. The postal service — soon to be the chief elections administrator amid the coronavirus pandemic — is a new battleground for lawmakers who are about to head into full-time reelection mode with their deliberate inaction looming in the background.
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The August recess is poised to start, when America’s elected officials will go home to ready the fall campaign season with face masks as the new yard signs. The optics of going home as health, economic and racial crises are entering a sixth month is the equivalent of pouring a bucket of iced water on a cardboard cutout of Lady Liberty.
Put simply: anyone telling you Washington cares about people like you is fibbing.
To be fair, lawmakers are exhausted. Senators on the ballot this fall have told McConnell to park colleagues in Washington so he can save his grip on the gavel beyond November’s elections. White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows is taking his first turn as the Administration’s leading hostage negotiator, and he and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have been schooled on the details of policy repeatedly by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell aren’t talking to each other. All the while, millions of Americans are in their first week of sharply reduced safety nets.
Meadows, a former House member who was a leader of the burn-it-down Freedom Caucus, signaled he was losing confidence in the potential for a deal before a self-imposed Friday deadline to find a fix. “Is Friday a drop-dead date? No,” he said. “But my optimism continues to diminish the closer we get to Friday, and [it] certainly falls off the cliff exponentially after Friday.”
Another bludgeon of honesty came during Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s interview on Wednesday with The New York Times’ chief Washington correspondent Carl Hulse. During a conversation between the two Capitol Hill veterans, McConnell offered this blunt assessment as to why he wasn’t part of the negotiations about the next round of pandemic relief unfolding among Pelosi, Schumer, Meadows and Mnuchin: “It eliminates sitting there and having to listen to Pelosi and Schumer’s talking points, which gets in the way of serious discussion.” It takes someone like Hulse to elicit that level of candor from the notoriously sphynx-like McConnell, but, in the words of the President, “It is what it is.”
There’s no easy fix to this moment. Washington dysfunction is running high. Distrust among the parties — not to mention between the chambers — is soaring. When lawmakers can’t agree on the fundamental need for postal workers to keep doing their jobs through snow, rain, heat and gloom, that signals a fundamental breakdown in what America expects of its government. When tens of millions of out-of-work Americans are told to trust Washington, that suggests Washington doesn’t see what its actions look like beyond the Beltway.
And when voters who don’t have a place to call home come Election Day are asked who should represent them in Washington, don’t count on them to side with the folks who let evictions start up again. It might be time to start recalibrating.
A version of this article first appeared in The DC Brief, TIME’s politics newsletter. Sign up here to get stories like this sent to your inbox every weekday.