The House and Senate reluctantly passed it. President Obama reluctantly signed it. Tea party cheerleaders on talk radio and cable TV took a victory lap but they didn’t really like it.

And just plain Americans? Well, they were torn between the temptation to call down a curse on the entire Washington establishment and the inclination to scratch their heads and ask, “What in the world just happened here?”

Love it or hate it – and as yet no one who loves it has had the temerity to say so – the debt ceiling/deficit reduction plan hammered out by Republican and Democratic leaders over the weekend is now the law of the land. The bill restored  the federal government’s borrowing authority and set the stage for more than $2 trillion in budget cuts just in time to save the country from the possibility of a first-ever default on its financial obligations. If all goes well, we won’t have to read the word “default” in another headline about congressional activity until after the 2012 elections.

CUTS ARE HAZY, DEBT REAL

The debt-ceiling increase is real, of course, and enables the government to keep financing its operations with borrowed money, at least until it runs through another $900 billion. The budget cuts, on the other hand, are harder to identify and in any case amount to a drop in the bucket when we consider that the national debt is well over $14 trillion and growing larger by the minute.

But then, the debate over raising the debt ceiling and reducing budget deficits was never really about dealing with the country’s worsening financial predicament.

It was about partisan political crusades and re-election campaigns and ideological divides that seem to defy rational discussion and transcend politicians’ ability or willingness to govern.

The debt-ceiling “showdown,” as the drama-loving media often labeled the proceedings, was a frightfully sorry spectacle that brought no glory to anyone involved. Politicians who would normally congratulate themselves for walking across the street without getting run over by a bus seemed uncharacteristically humble and low key after finally reaching agreement.

But the lack of blatant high-fiving was hardly sufficient penance for the insult they perpetrated against the American people and the world. Everyone from the president to the lowliest first-term member of Congress should have found the nearest microphone and apologized profusely for behavior unbecoming an elected participant in the world’s greatest democratic government.

Not only did they subject the country to the risk of a fiscal catastrophe that could have made the 2008 financial meltdown look like a walk in the park, but they did it for no good reason. The final agreement amounted to little more than the debt increase with no strings attached that Obama asked for months ago. The entire summer of crisis was a sham, an exercise in political theater of the absurd.

If there were any justice in politics, there would be an election next week and the voters could throw all these bums out of office.

The problem is, who would we choose to replace them?

It appears that the people who want to serve in Congress or the White House these days are either narrow-minded ideologues who care more about their cause than their country, or self-absorbed politicos who care about nothing but the next election.

To the extent that anything good came out of the debt-ceiling debate – heightened awareness of the nation’s debt problem, for example – it was a fortunate byproduct of the debacle, not a result of high-minded discussion by the governing class.

The fact is, the debt-ceiling issue never should have been linked to arguments about budget cuts and deficit reduction.

The debt ceiling had to be raised, to preserve the “full faith and credit” of the United States; holding the government’s borrowing power hostage to the virtually irreconcilable vagaries of party politics was shamefully irresponsible on the part of both Congress and the president.

BRIGHT SPOT

The issue of deficit reduction should have been dealt with separately, outside the crisis atmosphere created by the deadline for raising the debt ceiling.

If there’s a bright spot in all this, it might be that the debt deal signed by Obama offers the possibility – possibility being the operative word – of a more rational approach with creation of a bipartisan congressional committee to consider further debt reduction.

Perhaps the committee, working without the pressure of a ticking clock and the threat of imminent financial disaster, can raise the discussion to a higher level than we have seen in recent weeks.

Perhaps the 12 committee members, representing both parties in equal numbers, can bring some common sense and rationality to the task of debt reduction.

After what we’ve been through, the country deserves it.