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America's Crisis: Politics and Paralysis

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America does not just have a budget problem -- it has a problem with national deliberation and deadlines.

The NFL needs an extension until March 11th to settle its collective bargaining dispute. The president of the United States needs an extension until March 18th to come up with a budget plan to keep the government functioning. Even my 13-year-old wants an extension on his homework assignment. Nobody can get anything done on time and done well.

What has happened to our national ability to meet deadlines -- but in a deliberate and thoughtful way? We seem intellectually rushed and yet, paradoxically unable to make wise decisions and meet the limits we set for ourselves. Our nation is in a hurry to get somewhere but the destination is not clear.

Maybe it has something to do with the information age. In the old days, newspapers had to be "put to bed" so the presses could roll. Editors made editorial decisions on a daily basis with depth -- and speed. The newspaper made it to your front door -- and made sense. Now websites allow for endless blather disguised as news or commentary with no real ending to the story. There are no paragraphs or punctuation points. Network evening newscasts used to start at a certain hour and go off the air at a certain hour. You had to edit carefully and choose the most important stories to broadcast. Today, cable shows blur from one to another in a round-the-clock state of perpetual chatter leaving the viewer with déjà vu because they just heard the same person they heard the hour before.

We never have time to read the fine print. We never have to show patience -- never wait in lines to get things stamped because we have e-mail and on-line ordering. We rarely go to the library; we just download books -- that don't have to be returned, much less read. Who has time to read much beyond the back of the cereal box? Who needs to read when you can watch C-Span -- a great invention except for the fact that the hearings and testimony never end. We are living in one endless feedback loop with no off switch.

Is it deliberation or a giant parade we are watching?

All of this would be satirical if not deadly serious. The absence of time to deliberate and the inability to meet deadlines matters when it comes to governing the nation.

A good example is the recent House of Representatives floor debate carried live on C-Span where Members took to the floor to argue over budget amendments and demand vote counting with no time for cautious thinking. All they knew was that the clock was ticking and the viewers were watching.

A casualty of the undisciplined discourse was peace. Yep -- peace got lost in the pandemonium one morning when members voted to eliminate a federal agency -- the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) -- live on television -- even though many members had not read much about USIP and weren't sure of its mission. (It is a nonpartisan independent organization funded by Congress to support the national capacity to prevent, manage and resolve international conflicts without violence.) With little or no preparation, representatives voted to cut something just to meet a looming national budget deadline which came and went, anyway. It was a rush to judgment simply to make haste with false claims of cutting waste. Our nation now may go from week to week unsure if it is open or closed. Meanwhile, peace hangs in the balance!

In the end, we will get to the right place. Yet we do need some national counseling in the art of deliberating and making deadlines. They go together -- well, like pencils and paper. Our leaders must meet deadlines but also pause, reflect, study, examine, question and then decide -- on time and with care. Our nation needs discipline now -- fiscally and politically. We need to make hard choices that demand doing our homework and making sensible decisions. We have to separate out critical decisions from the mundane decisions. Big questions like war and peace must not get lost in endless dribble about less serious subjects. We have to differentiate and assign importance to some things over others.

There are no shortcuts to doing America's business and getting it done on time and on budget. We simply have to have intellectual discipline and know the facts of every case and then make the best case.

We have no choice. The world is watching us.

Tara Sonenshine is a former Contributing Editor at Newsweek magazine. She now serves as Executive Vice President of the United States Institute of Peace.