Paul Greenberg

The additional amount to be collected from the highest earners might be negligible in terms of balancing the federal budget or easing the national debt. Such an approach may even further hinder a still sputtering recovery by taxing away the venture capital it very much needs just now. But none of this matters to liberals of the kneejerk variety. It's the principle of the thing: The rich must be punished. Mainly for being rich. Hence it's no deal unless it includes a tax increase for those in the uppermost brackets. End of negotiations.

On the other, starboard side of the political spectrum, there are all the Republican congressmen elected in 2010 who promised to oppose any tax increase at all -- on anybody. And not increase the national debt unless maybe government spending is cut by at least a like amount. They seem to believe -- mirabile dictu! -- that a promise is a promise, their word is their bond, and all that. That kind of naivete may still be common out here in the sticks but it mystifies our sophisticates in Washington, where everybody who's anybody knows political promises are made to be broken.

Talk about the Spirit of '73: These tea party types in the House are proving as uncontrollable as the original bunch in Boston Harbor. End of negotiations.

Adherence to principle always scandalizes the respectables in both parties, the whited sepulchres of all persuasions, the tories of any era. But these unruly congressional types weren't compromising their principles on schedule. They needed to get with it.

But for some of us out here in flyover country, the spectacle of politicians whose word is their bond is actually refreshing. We didn't realize any were left.

Yes, we know, refusing to play the game according to the well-established rules in Washington is supposed to prove that the system is dysfunctional, to coin an overworked cliché. All the TV commentators on this highly regarded panel were just reflecting the conventional wisdom, which as usual is more conventional than wisdom.

But to a few of us simpler types, this little impasse in congressional halls demonstrates that the system is functioning, and not functioning, just as the writers of the Federalist Papers and the framers of the Constitution designed it. It's called a system of divided government, and by design it is supposed to work against itself as power checks power till somehow this Rube Goldberg treadmill clanks out the Will of the People.

A heretical thought: The miracle at Philadelphia in 1787, which the sophisticated told us even then wouldn't work, is still working. That sound you hear is just the friction of its unevenly moving parts. But they are moving. Even if none too fast, which is just the way the generation of Hamilton, Madison and Washington preferred it. Maybe those 18th-century gentlemen knew something that today's sophisticates have forgotten. Or never learned.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.