As the government shutdown dragged on, gloom mounted. James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, warned that foreign intelligence services might swoop in and recruit furloughed CIA workers. That seemed a little paranoid, but then we're talking about spies.
The CIA-doom scenario sounded a bit like the problems facing the cast of "Homeland" this season, except for the part where a member of Congress is a terrorist mole who falls in love with an intelligence agent who frequently fails to take her bipolar disorder medication. Reality in Washington has gotten so muddled that the land in "Homeland" is looking sort of attractive.
On Wednesday, House Republicans pushed to refund bits and pieces of the government that the members particularly like, such as veterans and the National Guard. Also anything that lends itself to a dramatic press conference, such as national parks and cancer treatment for children. Since the House proposals are never going anywhere in the Senate, there's a limit to what you want to know about what went on during the debate. Let's summarize:
Democrats: "Meaningless political theater!"
Republicans: "Come to the table!"
Coming to the table has now replaced strangling Obamacare as the most popular GOP war cry. There is a long-standing political rule that when all else fails, you demand more talking. If you're running for office against a guy who's got 70 percent in the polls, it's time to call for a debate. If you're already having four debates, it's time to call for six.
"Why don't we sit down and have a conference committee about how we're going to fund the federal government?" demanded Rep. Ander Crenshaw of Florida. Republicans have posed this question a lot, and it would be an excellent one if they were not the same folks who have spent the last half-year refusing to sit down and have a conference committee about the federal budget.
"Even Bill Clinton, after I voted to impeach him, would work with you to get things done," said Rep. John Mica of Florida. That seemed like a high bar. But then there's nobody Republicans love more than the former president, who has a winning way of not being Barack Obama. If only Bill Clinton would come back! Then none of this would have happened, except the shutting down the government part.
So here we are. The Senate has passed a bill to keep the government running until Nov. 15. A majority in the House would probably go along, but the House leadership won't let the bill come up for a vote. The fate of the nation now appears to be hinged on a couple of dozen unhinged House Republicans who are demanding that government funding be coupled with Obamacare axing.
Public-spirited citizens are now forced to become acquainted with a whole new collection of characters who seem to be running the show, like Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho. Actually, he is the easiest one to remember, since he once considered running for governor against the current incumbent, Butch Otter. I think I speak for us all when I say that Labrador versus Otter would have made 2014 worth waiting for.
Nobody else has that thrilling a resume. When a small number of legislators hold the balance of power, they almost always turn out to be terrible. No matter what party is in charge, when the leaders need just a handful of votes, it's going to come down to Crazy Fred and Julia-who's-about-to-be-indicted.
This time, the cast includes Louie Gohmert of Texas, who blamed the mass shooting at a movie theater in Colorado on "the ongoing attacks on Judeo-Christian beliefs." And Steve King of Iowa, who you may remember as the guy who claimed that the children of illegal immigrants have "calves the size of cantaloupes because they're hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert." And Michele Bachmann (you've met her).
Perhaps you also recall the exciting time that Mr. Gohmert, Mr. King and Ms. Bachmann had in Egypt on a recent fact-finding tour during which Ms. Bachmann appeared to get the Muslim Brotherhood mixed up with al-Qaida and Mr. Gohmert compared the general-in-charge, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, to George Washington.
And so we go. Lots to look forward to. Mark your calendars:
Oct. 17 -- Debt Ceiling Crashthrough! Government runs out of money to pay its creditors. Also the birthday of Dutch darts champion Jelle Klaasen and International Day for the Eradication of Poverty.
Nov. 15 -- Government runs out of funding! This is presuming it ever gets its funding back. Also, republic proclamation day in Brazil.
And then, you know, it's the holidays.
Maybe by that time Congress will achieve the goal it's been shooting for all year and get its favorability rating into negative numbers. As it is, the ratings for the final episode of "Breaking Bad" suggest that Americans would already prefer to spend time with a murderous methamphetamine dealer than the House of Representatives.opinion_commentary
Gail Collins is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.