WASHINGTON — There is no changing how Washington works. It doesn't.
Even if a bitterly divided Congress and President Barack Obama avoid a U.S. debt default by striking a last-second deal, as all sides expect, plenty of damage has been done.
People are disgusted. Confidence in the political system is tanking. Nothing else is getting done in Washington. The markets are spooked. The global reputation of the United States has slipped.
And the real kicker? This whole wrenching effort to shrink the debt may actually increase the debt.
Any emergency deal may not be broad enough to prevent the major credit rating agencies from downgrading the United States as a rock-solid investment. That, in turn, could increase the cost of borrowing for the government (hence more interest and debt), not to mention for everyone else.
The spectacle has brought Washington to its knees. Obama went on TV before the nation and called it a circus. One lawmaker felt compelled to apologize to the American people.
"I can only imagine the anger and disgust they have," said Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, "at witnessing a broken government and a president and members of Congress who can't seem to even agree sometimes on what day it is, yet alone to solve the nation's debt crisis."
That about sums it up.
Polls show people's trust in government is at one of its worst levels in decades. An ABC/Washington Post survey this month found that a whopping 80 percent of people were angry or dissatisfied with the federal government. About a decade ago, it wasn't half that high.
Pleading for the parties to work together for the American people, Obama said, "That's the least that they should expect of us, not the most that they should expect of us."
Achieving the least is proving nearly impossible.
Leaders have talked to each other, then not talked to each other, then talked about each other. None of it has really worked.
This Washington moment began as something big — a bipartisan effort to put a real dent in the long-term debt by taking on political issues that are genuinely tough for both parties. It has now devolved into a panicky debate over whether the nation's debt limit will be raised by Tuesday so the country can pay its bills.
Voters, remember, want their leaders to be focused on jobs. The goal of preventing a self-inflicted economic catastrophe is hardly a standard of excellence.
When this is all over, politicians will claim credit wherever they can, and blame their opponents for the long, embarrassing spectacle. The results will be viewed through the prism of the 2012 election, in terms of who came out best overall, or with those oh-so-coveted independent voters, or among their polarized bases as the party primaries approach.
And the public will assign blame, deciding whether those pushing compromise will be rewarded as eminently sensible or punished for caving.
That misses the point.
In the biggest sense, everyone has lost.
"We have now taken a process that was not getting a lot of attention and convinced people that this is not the usual shenanigans. It is farcical and utterly dysfunctional," said Norman Ornstein, a political science scholar at the American Enterprise who has long examined Washington's ways. "Whatever they pull out here in the end, that image isn't going to change."
Consider some of the many ways Washington has not been able to escape itself:
—Given the huge issues at stake, from the size of the debt to the role of government, voters might have hoped for a big, open debate of ideas. What they have had instead is a confusing process that's playing out in secret or in strident statements to the press. Obama and House Speaker John Boehner had dueling news conferences to assign blame for their broken negotiations, then rivaling addresses to the nation to try to sway the American people. Obama at one point said he could not even get a phone call returned from Boehner.
—Congress, as usual, is exhausting all of its partisan options before truly considering a potential agreement in the final hours. That's viewed as normal, or even helpful, in Washington. A weary country, meanwhile, is getting daily updates about what it would mean to live with the first default in the country's history.
—Boehner suspended the voting on his own bill so that he could find a way to snag the final votes he needed. The House switched to naming post offices as time slipped away. A White House official said this is why people hate Washington. Boehner's office said it showed reform for Washington: At least he didn't try to ram the bill through in the dead of night.
—Obama is getting bashed for not putting his own plan on paper. The White House claims to do that would be to ensure its defeat, because Republicans cannot publicly support whatever Obama does. "Maybe that's a sad statement, perhaps, about how Washington works," said presidential spokesman Jay Carney, "but it's an incredibly realistic statement."
—The president said the world is watching. The international community is seeing a superpower bicker and flail in its attempt to reduce its staggering debt.
—The embarrassing stalemate follows a breathless budget clash between the parties that came close to shutting down the government. And with the nation still stuck in a rut on job creation, there is little reason to be hopeful for a bipartisan economic agenda between now and the presidential and congressional elections in November 2012.1 comment on this story
—The voices of moderation in both parties have been disappearing, in part because of election districts drawn to favor sharply one party of the other. Ornstein predicts the next election will bring only more polarization, meaning there's little chance for a climate of compromise anytime over the horizon. "This is not exactly a shining moment for America," he said.
Obama likes to remind voters that they had better intentions than this when they put Democrats in control of the White House and Senate and Republicans in charge of the House.
"The American people may have voted for divided government, but they didn't vote for a dysfunctional government," the president says.
Too bad they got both.
EDITOR'S NOTE — White House Correspondent Ben Feller has covered the Obama and Bush presidencies for The Associated Press.