You know it's bad when Congress can't even keep the Capitol Christmas Tree lit.....at the very ceremony dedicated to lighting up the Capitol Christmas Tree.
Congress is trying to keep the government open past December 16. It's trying to preserve a crucial payroll tax break from expiring before the end of the year. It is wrestling with renewing unemployment insurance. And now, Congress may have another challenge besides keeping the federal government's lights on: maintaining a 65-foot white fir illuminated for the holiday season on the West Lawn of the Capitol.
The Forest Service plucked the tree from the Stanislaus National Forest in California and erected it in the shadow of the Capitol Dome. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and seven-year-old Johnny Crawford of Sonora, CA threw the switch to light the fir in all of its glory. A crowd of hundreds ooohed in excitement and the Army Band played "O Tannenbaum" as the tree glistened with soft hues of red and blue. A brilliant gold star radiated from the pinnacle like a beacon.
For one minute and 16 seconds.
Or precisely 26 seconds after Architect of the Capitol and master of ceremonies Stephen Ayers asked the assembled "doesn't the tree look wonderful ladies and gentlemen?"
As quickly as the Christmas tree stirred to life, it was plunged back into darkness as the band tooted a version of "Joy to the World."
No one realized that the consequences of the supercommittee's failure included a sequester of the power supply for the Capitol Christmas tree, too.
The Christmas tree came from the district of freshman Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA) who basked in its glory and posed for pictures. Until the lights flickered out.
"It's my first tree lighting. I'm not sure if it is customary or not," Denham said. "But at least we had it lit."
This is all reminiscent of "The 12 Pains for Christmas" parody song by disc jockey Bob Rivers.
"One light goes out, they all go out!" exclaims one exasperated man in the song as he tries to rig up the lights.
Johnny Crawford is one of Denham's constituents and won the right to light the tree in a national contest. He may only be in grade school (and missing his two front teeth, so you know what he wants for Christmas), but like the political mood sweeping the country, Crawford's already dubious of those in Congress.
"They turned it off on purpose....I think," proffered Crawford.
During his remarks before they lighted the tree, Boehner made sure everyone knew that Crawford "wasn't just any seven-year-old" and was a Cub Scout.
"So if something goes wrong, I know he'll know how to figure this out," Boehner told the throng.
But Crawford was at a loss. Much like Congress appears now with the payroll tax and unemployment insurance issues. The tree remained dark for more than seven minutes until the lights finally kicked on again for good.
No one ever quite figured out what went wrong with the tree, although various theories abounded.
The ceremony was held amid unseasonable 60-degree temperatures and a damp sprinkle. Stephen Ayers suggested that water got into a switch and shorted it out.
One of the onlookers blamed embattled former Rep. David Wu (D-OR) who made a surprise appearance at the ceremony alongside his kids. Wu resigned in disgrace over the summer after he was accused of an unwanted sexual encounter.
Some accused the Occupy Congress crowd for sabotaging the tree. Throughout the day, hundreds of Occupy Congress protesters descended on the Capitol complex. They conducted sit-ins in the offices of lawmakers and asked for meetings throughout the day Tuesday. After squatting in the office of House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI), the Congressman invited a group of 20 demonstrators down the from his main office suite to a large conference room where he listened to their grievances.
The protesters would get no such satisfaction outside at the tree lighting ceremony. They started chanting as soon as Boehner began his remarks.
"All we want for Christmas is jobs not cuts," the dissenters repeated, trying to drown out Boehner. But without much success.
In his prepared remarks, Boehner spoke about the Christmas story and how the tree "flourishes as a symbol of everlasting life."
"We best serve this story by serving one another. By showing it is more blessed to give than to receive, especially when so many of our fellow citizens are without jobs and in need," he said amid the Occupy Congress chants.
Which, tree fail or not, brings us to the nexus of what Congress is trying to solve before Christmas: a renewal of the payroll tax cut so the tax bills of 160 million Americans don't balloon by $1,000 in January. Also on the agenda is a holiday extension of unemployment insurance.
This is problematic because the majorities in both bodies of Congress can't rally a coalition of lawmakers around any particular plan.
Democrats believe they have the political upper hand on the unemployment insurance/payroll tax issue. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) indicated that Republicans know voters won't forgive them if the GOP is perceived as unwilling to tackle these bread and butter issues before the holidays.
"I think frankly they're struggling to see what they can get their members to vote for," said Hoyer of the House GOP predicament. "There is a core group over there that is inflexible."
Hoyer said its up to House Republicans to mold legislation that can court a mix of lawmakers.
"The calculus is determining how far they can go to make sure they get Democratic votes without losing a majority on their side," Hoyer said.
The Maryland Democrat then blamed the parliamentary stasis on those who voted for conservatives and tea party loyalists.
"That's the problem with electing a very narrow perspective to serve in the Congress where compromise is essential," lamented Hoyer.
Both sides need each other if they're going to solve these issues in the next couple of weeks.
The payroll tax helps fund Social Security. Simply renewing the tax break could diminish the solvency of Social Security unless Congress erects a "pay-for" to cover the diminished revenue. Conservatives are skeptical about stretching out patches to fill in the difference over a broad period of time.
Meantime, Democrats and Republicans see little common ground on paying for the extended unemployment benefits. Republicans want to cover the difference with other cuts. Democrats argue cuts elsewhere could curtail the impact of the unemployment insurance on the economy.
Many fiscal conservatives fret that the House hasn't done enough this year to slash the deficit. They didn't get excited about the bill to avert a government shutdown that trimmed $61 billion. They abhorred the measure that raised the debt ceiling. And now they're faced with this.
A senior House Republican pointed out that the optics of Republicans failing to approve these two measures could hurt the GOP in an election year.
"We've asked them to vote for all of these things all year and now this at the end of the year?" said the Republican said on the condition of anonymity. "They don't have it in them. And some of them don't realize how this looks (to the public)."
At the end of the day, the trouble with lighting the Capitol Christmas tree is about how it looks to the public. It's just a short in a wire. But it feeds into the narrative that Congress can't do anything right. Especially at Christmas.
The payroll tax break renewal and additional unemployment benefits are about real people and their economic well-being. But just like the failed Christmas tree lighting, it feeds the perception that Congress can't get its act together and is calloused toward working folks and those down on their luck.
Both situations come down to optics.
Which means Congress might not look very good this holiday season.