The U.S. government can now meet its obligations. A deal has been struck between Democrats and Republicans on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. The crisis we have been forced to live through these past few weeks has been averted — for the time being.

Yet this is no time for a celebration. Everyone in Washington walks away embarrassed — and literally walks away since they are going on a long summer vacation.

Meanwhile, voters must now look in the mirror and realize we were deluded in believing that we have the nation’s biggest brains working on our national problems. It is obvious we don’t.

The political left and right are both upset with the bargain struck. The right wanted more cuts, initiated more quickly. Progressives wanted more revenue, raised in the form of higher taxes from the wealthy. Some members of the Congressional Black Caucus now wonder if they have a friend in the White House. A lot of the participants feel like they were left on the wrong side of this bargain.

But don’t look inside the Beltway for who really lost.

The people are the biggest losers in this unnecessary mess America just lived through. And the people will continue to lose — until there is widespread consensus that the system needs serious repair. This country needs a long, vigorous, honest debate about how to strengthen itself for the future.

Healthy debate has been replaced by automatic sensors that eliminate the need for actual talking during a filibuster — à la “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Robust debate is necessary in a democratic society. Instead, our discourse has been relegated to media spin by expert entertainers.

The federal government has a spending problem. That is obvious. The deal struck included an increase in the debt ceiling — the statutory amount of money our government is limited to borrowing. But citizens need to understand what that means in concrete terms: The national government’s debt ceiling, which Congress just increased, allows the Treasury to borrow $15 trillion or more in accumulated debt to meet federal spending obligations.

That is a very large number — and every cent must be paid back.

Yes, this country’s government has a debt problem — and it must be fixed. If we do not, future increases in the debt ceiling won’t matter. No one will likely want to take our IOUs, because they will become worthless — and that will wreck the world economy, and our children’s and grandchildren’s futures with it.

Look at the havoc caused by the potential default of Greece. As large as Greece’s economy is, it is small compared with the U.S. economy. If we ever get to the point where we might be unable pay our bills, as Greece did, that will have historically bad implications of the type we can’t even imagine.

Greece’s European neighbors were able step in and bolster the weak foundation on which Greece’s free-spending budget was based. It would be difficult for any country, or intergovernmental organization, to rescue an economy the size of the U.S. if investors were ever to lose faith in our bonds because of our enormous debt.

Let’s put this in simple terms: The federal government borrows 40 cents of every dollar it spends. That is ultimately as dangerous as it is unsustainable.

Is there enough capital in the world to continue financing our current spending spree? It is hard to argue with those who say there is not.

We must get our house in order — starting today. The consequences of doing anything else are too dire.

So what did members of Congress do right after the necessary evil of increasing the debt limit? How did they dig in to begin paying down the mountains of debt they voted to create? What was the first prong of the national legislature’s strategy for increasing confidence in the future of the U.S. economy and solidifying our ability to live within our governmental means?

Congress began a five-week vacation.

Few problems of historic proportions are solved while those who are supposed to be tackling them are on vacation.

During the earliest days of our constitutional government, members had to leave D.C. during the summer — and not because the Capitol lacked air conditioning. Those elected to Congress were paid part-time salaries for part-time work. Between 1789 and 1855, the salary was $6 a day. So members had to go back home to tend to their businesses, their law practices or their farms.

Now members make a full-time salary — $174,000 a year — because, in theory, they are asked for full-time service. Yet they still insist on long breaks from the nose-to-the-grindstone work that must take place in face-to-face meetings in D.C.

We all understand that they must go home to speak with constituents about what they are doing on Capitol Hill. But five weeks? When there is grave business that must be done and sober decisions that must be made right now?

When Congress does return — in mid-September — we will be treated to the spectacle of 12 members evenly divided among the two parties trying to recommend more than a trillion dollars in cuts from the budget. To which all others are expected to agree.

All of a sudden, these people — who are most responsible for the problems we must now solve — are going to become apostles of fiscal discipline? We’ll see how well that works out.

The people are rightfully dubious, though, and have raised serious questions about spending-cut triggers and who will control enforcement.

We, the people, need to demand that Washington do better — largely by becoming more involved in the process. And likely by sending new people to Congress, who can help what seems to be those relatively few members who are blessed with qualification, commitment and the will to do so.

The piece originally appeared in Politico on August 4, 2011:

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