Is there anyone out there who hasn’t been fed up with the I’m-gonna-hold-my-breath-till-I-turn-blue standoff in Washington, D.C.? The political gridlock over the nation’s debt ceiling has been the perfect example of what happens when the electorate puts extremists — from the far left as well as the tea party right — in office. Rather than working out a compromise and getting on with the job, each side retreats into their own corner to sulk and hold onto stubborn ideas that need to bend.

At best, it’s childish for our elected leaders to behave this way, and editorial cartoonists across the country have had a field day lampooning them as the babies and brats they’ve become. At worst, it’s deplorable the way all factions in this fiasco have put the American people — seniors on Social Security, soldiers who make little money as it is, middle- and lower-income individuals and families struggling to recover economically — at risk as they bickered and brought us ever closer to a catastrophic default.

Former President Ronald Reagan once famously said: “Government is not a solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Right now, many Americans would probably agree with Reagan’s statement as they have watched our elected leaders make a bigger mess with every passing day.

As Tribune reporters Dan Zeiger and Garin Groff reported last week, the Obama administration and many economists fear that if the debt ceiling — the legal limit the country can borrow to pay for expenses already incurred — is not raised from its current figure of $14.3 trillion by Tuesday, the U.S. will default and set off a global economic slowdown.

As of Saturday afternoon, an agreement still had not been reached. But even if our federal leaders do manage to avoid a default, their handling of this crisis has already done plenty of damage. Last week a Reuters poll found that a majority of economists believe the United States will lose its AAA credit rating from at least one of the three big ratings agencies.

Reuters reported that poll respondents now see a 20 percent chance of a new recession over the next year, “a prospect that some economists say has been compounded by the acrimonious political fight over what is normally a procedural legislative vote on the debt.”

Congress has raised the debt ceiling 72 times since 1962, 10 times in the last decade. But this time, Republicans, who control the House of Representatives, want major spending reductions to go with a ceiling increase; Democrats have also proposed spending cuts, but want additional revenue as well via tax increases.

That’s not the only schism complicating this already complicated tangle. Tea party Republicans don’t think House Speaker John Boehner’s plan cuts spending enough; Boehner told his fellow Republicans on Wednesday to “get your ass in line” and get behind his plan. Arizona’s own Sen. John McCain jumped into the mix too, criticizing the “tea party hobbits” for their “bizarro” ideas.

Meanwhile, the Democrats aren’t exactly united either, with some feeling betrayed by President Barack Obama’s proposed cuts to social programs. And some disgruntled Dems want Obama to invoke the 14th Amendment and raise the debt ceiling himself — though if he tried to do that, there would no doubt be more bickering over the constitutionality of such a move.

And let’s not forget: Next year is an election year and neither party wants to be blamed for the fallout from this fracas. More importantly, both parties have political incentive to maneuver toward a disaster that makes the other party look responsible.

They all deserve a sound thrashing behind the woodshed.

In homes across America, old people on fixed incomes have worried that their Social Security checks won’t arrive. Families of soldiers serving overseas have hoped their pay will still be there. People with mortgages and debt have lost sleep thinking about what a default would do to their interest rates.

We all deserve better. And hopefully, we’ll remember that the next time we cast our ballots.

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