Sunday, July 31, 2011




WASHINGTON — Ground zero of the debt crisis in Washington just might be Speaker John A. Boehner’s call center, hidden away in a corner of the Capitol, where five besieged staff members have as many as 300 people on hold at a time. “Diane from Oregon” managed to get through on Thursday to tell the center’s director, Thomas A. Andrews, that Mr. Boehner should “cut spending now.”

Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

Dusk fell over the Capitol, the epicenter of thus-far fruitless negotiations over how to raise the debt ceiling that prompted anxiety and disgust around the city.


Mr. Andrews, 24, thanked her for her thoughts, then checked to see how long her wait time had been. “Oh, it’s actually down to 30 minutes,” he said, cheered that it was not an hour and a half. Quickly, he returned to work, where the rest of an astonishing deluge — 15,000 voice mails and 30,000 e-mails a day — cried out for his attention.

If the rest of the country thinks Washington has gone mad this summer, that is pretty much the view in this bewildered capital, too, even in Mr. Boehner’s overwhelmed call center.

Among the bar patrons at the Old Ebbitt Grill worried about stock portfolios, the tourists anxious about disability checks and the current and former policy makers stunned by Washington paralysis, the mood was described variously as one of doom, disgust and disbelief. Washington is talking of little else.

“I never saw anything like this, and I never thought I would see anything like this,” said Laurence H. Meyer, a former Federal Reserve governor who has been fielding calls from worried hedge fund clients to his Washington research firm, Macroeconomic Advisers. “I never appreciated how dysfunctional our political system is.”

Tourists who have come from around the world to see messy American democracy in action are watching far more mess than they ever expected. “You guys are nuts,” said Joseph Eastwood, 44, a Toronto accountant who was waiting in the Capitol Visitor Center for a tour last week. “Instead of building the country, you’re destroying it.”

A German tourist standing nearby was more tactful but was nonetheless perplexed as he tried to teach his two teenage children about the scale of United States debt. “They are not quite understanding the sum of money borrowed,” said Peter Radewahn, 54, the director of a Bonn lobbying group. (The United States has about $14 trillion in debt, which is 99.5 percent of its yearly economic output. Germany has $2.85 trillion in debt, or 80 percent of its output.) Mr. Radewahn said he did not want to say more because he was a guest in America and wished to be diplomatic.

Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, had no such qualms. He fumed on Friday that although Mr. Boehner was throwing “piece after piece of red meat to his right-wing lions” — that is, Tea Party-allied Republicans who are steadfastly opposed to raising the debt limit — they were never sated.

Of course, few could match the scorn last week of Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, who, quoting an editorial in The Wall Street Journal, derided the “Tea Party Hobbits.” (Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, a Tea Party-allied Republican, later retorted, “I’d rather be a hobbit than a troll.”)

Beyond the sniping of opposing lawmakers, this legislative crisis has reached deeper into the layers of Washington, perhaps even more than the protracted debate over health care did. Much of what is occurring in Congress may be incomprehensible, but the basic issue — that the United States needs to increase the limit on its credit card or not be able to pay its bills — is understood.

“I get people stopping me around the Capitol more, asking what’s going to happen,” saidKelly O’Donnell, the Capitol Hill correspondent for NBC, who said she was averaging about four hours of sleep a night. “A lot of kids ask, which is interesting.”

One such visitor, Luke Stancil, 13, the chairman of the Teenage Republicans of Johnston County, N.C., had many questions and thoughts about the debt crisis during a trip to Washington last week. While waiting to see Mr. Paul with a group of other teenage Republicans in the Cannon House Office Building on Thursday, Luke said that although he liked conservatives affiliated with the Tea Party, he felt that in the interest of the country they should support Mr. Boehner’s bill to raise the debt ceiling.

“That’s all they have now,” Mr. Stancil said soberly. (Mr. Boehner ended up postponing the vote because of a lack of conservative support, but a modified version of his bill was passed on Friday before it was killed later that day in the Senate.)

Meanwhile, weighing in from Chicago was its newly elected mayor, Rahm Emanuel, Mr. Obama’s incendiary former White House chief of staff, who, had he been in his old job, would have been engaged in hand-to-hand combat on Capitol Hill.

“I just passed four bills today, so I’m very happy,” Mr. Emanuel reported. Well, what did he make of what was going on in Washington? “My basic point is, look, your country requires you to take responsibility and understand what an honest compromise is,” he said. He declined to answer a question about whether he missed the capital.

At the Old Ebbitt Grill, across the street from the Treasury Department, Cory Carlson, a 27-year-old account executive for the EMC Corporation, a technology giant, was at the bar on Thursday with friends. Asked about the chaos on Capitol Hill, Mr. Carlson said that the health of the economy depended on Congress raising the debt limit and that he was worried about his investments. “Don’t get me started,” he said.

In front of the Treasury building on Friday morning, Margaret McCoy, 64, who was visiting from Pembroke, N.C., said she was worried, too — about her government disability checks.

“I’m fed up with it, just fed up with it,” she said, referring to the battle in Congress. “If their checks were cut like they said ours might be cut, I wonder how they would feel.”

She looked down the street toward the White House and saw a knot of demonstrators. Were they protesting the debt crisis, she wondered, a note of hope in her voice.

Actually, no. The demonstrators were celebrating a White House visit by President Alpha Condé, considered Guinea’s first democratically elected leader. (A separate Guinean group was also protesting the visit. The street outside the White House is a busy place.)

The Guineans in the pro-Condé group were very cheerful, although they said they were astonished by the debt crisis and the chaos on Capitol Hill. “It’s crazy, it’s just crazy,” said Noumouke Cisse, 57, a taxi driver from New Haven, Conn. “They are the world leaders, you know? We are very surprised they continue to fight each other.”