The sense that Washington is hopelessly gridlocked has become a source of national despair.
Approval ratings for both Obama and Congress continue to tumble. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Tuesday found that only 22 percent of voters are inclined to give their own representatives another term — a record low for that poll.
Despite this disapproval, though, a stalemate might not be all bad.
It's not just Congress that's split — the public is divided on nearly every issue, too. So, if Washington were, in fact, able to act, it's possible Americans might be even angrier than they are now.
"If the federal government were passing a constitutional amendment restricting abortion, or if they were passing a national gay marriage act, you'd actually find much more unhappiness," says Lara Brown, a political scientist at George Washington University.
Is Gridlock Good?
Failure to deal with the nation's serious problems is a righteous source of frustration. But — absent majority support in the country for nearly any policy approach — voters might be even more unhappy if Congress were to act in any robust way, Stanford University political scientist Morris Fiorina suggested recently on the Washington Post's popular Monkey Cage blog.
Gridlock may be maddening, in other words, but the alternatives might be worse.
"Gridlock is good," says William Connelly, a political scientist at Washington and Lee University. "I'm not the first person to say it."
Neither party is happy when the other attempts to ram through one-sided legislation. Democrats didn't like it in 2005 when President George W. Bush wanted to privatize parts of Social Security, and Republicans have never stopped complaining that Democrats were able to take advantage of their congressional majorities in 2010 to push through the Affordable Care Act.
Republicans may have been playing politics by withholding any support for Obamacare, but the health care law certainly hasn't gained popularity since its passage.
"Passing it without any Republican support was problematic, at best, and paved the way for the contentiousness and doggedness of Republicans now in aiming to repeal and replace it," Connelly says. "The system is not meant to be simple majority rule, where a fleeting majority, as measured by public opinion polls, dictates legislation."
The Need For Consensus
By contrast, most major pieces of legislation in the 20th century — the creation of Social Security back in the 1930s and the interstate highway system in the 1950s, or the civil rights laws of the 1960s — received bipartisan congressional support in the end, reflecting consensus in the country. In that regard, Obamacare was a departure.
There's no such consensus now on changes to tax policy or immigration law or education. If Congress were to push through major legislation on a regular basis, it would invite a backlash, much as Obamacare did, suggests Brown, the George Washington political scientist.
Americans might hate inactivity, but they'd like finished products even less, according to Brown. That may be one reason why power has kept seesawing in elections over the past decade, as the two parties have taken turns winning and then overreaching.
"People are polarized, it's so clear on just about every issue," she says. "It is just a fact that we don't have the public consensus that once existed."
No Chance For Compromise
Democrats can make a fair case that Republicans had no interest in negotiating when it came to the health care law — or just about anything else that's come up during Obama's time in office.
When power is divided, there's no alternative to negotiation and compromise, says Lee Hamilton, an Indiana Democrat who served in the House from 1965 to 1999. That's the way the American system of government was set up.
But today's politicians often seem more interested in scoring points and waiting for the next election than coming up with a deal.
Congress passed hardly any laws in 2013. This year threatens to be even less productive.
"The premise when I was there, and for 200 years in the Congress, was that we have to reach an agreement," Hamilton says. "Today, I'm not sure that premise exists."
If the Tabernas Desert in Spain's Almeria region looks like the set of a Hollywood Western, that's because it was one.
In the 1960s and '70s, it was a Hollywood outpost in Europe where dozens of American film stars — Clint Eastwood, Henry Fonda, Charlton Heston, Sophia Loren, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor — made a temporary home while filming movies, including the kind that the area became most famous for: Spaghetti Westerns. The genre's name originates from Italian directors like the late Sergio Leone, who built film sets in the windy, barren desert an hour from the Mediterranean Sea.
Hundreds of films were made here, including Leone's famous Dollars Trilogy — A Fistful Of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly — as well as parts of Lawrence Of Arabia and Cleopatra.
A Hands-On Experience
Today, the sets where those movies were made have been converted into Western-style cinema theme parks where tourists can stroll through a saloon, spend time behind bars in a local jail or reenact a shootout in the town square. Actors in cowboy hats and chaps put on daily stunt shows in which Western movie themes are piped through a fake town square. The First City Bank gets robbed every day; the same gun-slinging bandit is always handed over to the hangman. There's also a zoo and water park.
"It looks quite authentic, it looks quite like the Wild West, like Arizona a little bit," says Shadae Talebi, a Californian who lives in Europe and brought her two young children on vacation to Spain.
In general, the theme parks attract aficionados of Westerns.
"My husband has always watched them, so John Wayne is always around and so is Clint Eastwood," says British tourist Angela Thorogood.
Many of the workers are aging stuntmen who fell off balconies or galloped on horseback alongside Clint Eastwood back in the day — now they perform at children's birthday parties. The same people get shot every day, says actor Jose Francisco Garcia Pascual, who drives a horse-drawn cart while packing heat.
"This is very, very hard work. Every day I kill three, four [people]," he says, chuckling.
What The 'Golden Age Of Western Films' Left Behind
Western film directors chose the Tabernas Desert because it resembles the American West with its windswept plains crisscrossed by dry riverbeds and rocky ravines. It was also cheap. But by the late 1970s, directors had found better bargain locations — in Morocco and Turkey — and Almeria's film industry dried up.
In the tiny village of Tabernas — the only real settlement for dozens of miles — elderly residents trade tales of their glory days in the golden age of Westerns.
"This was considered the Spanish Hollywood," says Jesus Laguna, a former stuntman who still wears a cowboy hat. "All types of actors came through here — American Oscar winners, they were all here. But not anymore."
Like much of Spain, the Tabernas Desert has fallen on hard times. Unemployment in the Almeria region tops 30 percent. Recently, Spanish photographer Alvaro Deprit spent a month living in the desert, documenting the lives of those left behind when the film work dried up.
"It's a melancholy feeling," Deprit says, "because their world has finished. It was the golden age of Western films, and now it's an imitation of what it once was."
Those left behind include a member of the Blackfoot Indian Nation who worked as a film extra and has been living in a rustic desert camp ever since.
There's also a local actor, Jose Novo, who looks nearly identical to the late Henry Fonda. Novo says his mother was friendly with the American actor, and gave birth exactly nine months after Fonda was last in Almeria shooting a film, in 1968. It was aptly titled, Once Upon A Time In The West.
Military radar indicates that the missing Boeing 777 jet may have turned back, Malaysia's air force chief said Sunday as scores of ships and aircraft from across Asia resumed a hunt for the plane and its 239 passengers.
There was still no confirmed sighting of debris in the seas between Malaysia and Vietnam where it vanished from screens early Saturday morning en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur. The weather was fine, the plane was already cruising and the pilots didn't send a distress signal — unusual circumstance for a modern jetliner to crash.
Air force chief Rodzali Daud didn't say which direction the plane might have taken when it apparently went off route.
"We are trying to make sense of this," he told a media conference. "The military radar indicated that the aircraft may have made a turn back and in some parts, this was corroborated by civilian radar."
Malaysia Airlines Chief Executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said pilots were supposed to inform the airline and traffic control authorities if the plane does start to return. "From what we have, there was no such distress signal or distress call per say, so we are equally puzzled," he said.
Authorities were checking on the suspect identities of at least two passengers who appear to have boarded with stolen passports. On Saturday, the foreign ministries in Italy and Austria said the names of two citizens listed on the flight's manifest matched the names on two passports reported stolen in Thailand.
This, and the sudden disappearance of the plane that experts say is consistent with a possible onboard explosion, strengthened existing concerns about terrorism as a possible cause for the disappearance. Al-Qaida militants have used similar tactics to try and disguise their identities.
Earlier Sunday, Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said that authorities were looking at four possible cases of suspect identities, and that Malaysian intelligence agencies were in contact with their international counterparts, including the FBI, in this regard.
Later, civil aviation chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman mentioned only two passengers with unverified identities.
Two-thirds of the jet's passengers were from China. The rest were from elsewhere in Asia, North America and Europe.
A total of 22 aircraft and 40 ships have been deployed to the area by Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, China and the United States, not counting Vietnam's fleet.
Li Jiaxiang, administrator of the Civil Aviation Administration of China, said some debris had been spotted, but it was unclear whether it came from the plane. Vietnamese authorities said they had seen nothing close to two large oil slicks they saw Saturday and said might be from the missing plane.
Finding traces of an aircraft that disappears over sea can take days or longer, even with a sustained search effort. Depending on the circumstances of the crash, wreckage can be scattered over many square kilometers (miles). If the plane enters the water before breaking up, there can be relatively little debris.
A team of American experts was en route to Asia to be ready to assist in the investigation into the crash. The team includes accident investigators from National Transportation Safety Board, as well as technical experts from the Federal Aviation Administration and Boeing, the safety board said in a statement.
Malaysia Airlines has a good safety record, as does the 777, which had not had a fatal crash in its 19-year history until an Asiana Airlines plane crashed last July in San Francisco, killing three passengers, all teenagers from China.
Investigators will need access to the flight data recorders to determine what happened.
Aviation and terrorism experts said revelations about stolen passports would strengthen speculation of foul play. They also acknowledged other scenarios, including some catastrophic failure of the engines or structure of the plane, extreme turbulence or pilot error or even suicide, were also possible.
Jason Middleton, the head of the Sydney-based University of New South Wales' School of Aviation, said terrorism or some other form of foul play seemed a likely explanation.
"You're looking at some highly unexpected thing, and the only ones people can think of are basically foul play, being either a bomb or some immediate incapacitating of the pilots by someone doing the wrong thing and that might lead to an airplane going straight into the ocean," Middleton said on Sunday. "With two stolen passports (on board), you'd have to suspect that that's one of the likely options."
The crowds are so thick in Austin, Texas, that locals are using an Avoid Humans app to find some peace and quiet, and the warning at the convention center of South By Southwest Interactive goes something like this: "Only one person per escalator step OR YOU WILL BREAK IT!"
So it goes at this sprawling showcase of startups and big ideas. Naturally, the broadcast television disruptor, Aereo, timed the launch of its Austin service to South By Southwest just as the Supreme Court decided to take up a dispute between the startup and big broadcasters.
At issue is whether Aereo, under U.S. copyright law, can continue to avoid paying license fees to rebroadcast content as it brings live, broadcast television through its tiny antennas. The service allows users in 13 cities to watch broadcast TV online, for $8 a month.
Broadcasters call it theft, the Justice Department backed them up, and soon, the high court will hear the case.
"We urged the court to take the case as well, which is unusual," said Aereo's founder and CEO, Chet Kanojia, during an interview in Austin. "But we did it simply because it was very obvious that the strategy for the other side was to kill us by suing us in every possible jurisdiction. It's better strategically for us to force the issue now."
It could have serious ramifications for the way we watch TV, and more immediately, what kinds of sports and programming we can get on TV, as The New Yorker lays out:
"Whatever the reason for the Court's interest, the broadcast networks and their partners have warned that they are not above holding their programming hostage if Aereo prevails. In an amicus brief supporting the networks, the National Football League and Major League Baseball argue that Aereo's business model jeopardizes billions of dollars in license fees. The leagues say that they will have to consider removing their games from the public airwaves and placing them exclusively on cable to keep them away from Aereo's antennae."
Kanojia argues he's on the side of the progress. "This is not a company started just to we could milk a situation," he says. "We firmly believe in the idea that change and progress should be made. There is no logic in me paying for 500 channels that I don't watch. There is no incentive on the incumbents to change, so it takes somebody like us, or the Dish guys are great, too, to come in and say, this is the trend, life is changing. The Internet is happening to us whether we like it or not."
When asked whether he has a contingency plan if the Supreme Court rules against his company, Kanojia simply said, "No."
In 2009, a major corruption scandal dubbed "Kids for Cash" hit the juvenile justice system of northeast Pennsylvania.
Two local judges had been enforcing a zero-tolerance policy for bad behavior by kids. Even minor offenses, like fighting in school or underage drinking, could mean hard time in a juvenile detention facility.
Federal prosecutors alleged the judges were actually getting kickbacks from those private detention facilities. They said the judges kept the juvenile detention centers full, and received cash in return.
Both judges are now serving time in federal prison, but a new documentary called Kids for Cash is re-examining the case.
"I wanted these kids to think that I was the biggest SOB that ever lived," says former Judge Mark Ciavarella in the film. "I wanted them to be scared out of their minds when they had to deal with me. Because I was hoping, because of that, they would never put themselves again where they would have to come and deal with me."
Robert May directed the film, which features interviews with some of the kids involved — and both of the judges.
"We weren't even going to make the movie unless we could really tell the story from the villain and the victims' side," May tells NPR's Arun Rath.
On working with the "villains" of the film
When I first met with Mark Ciavarella and approached him on the idea of doing this film ... I had to make sure that he understood that he was the villain, and he said that he was. He ultimately agreed to do the film, but he did not want to tell his attorneys that he was actually participating in the film. That was the same with Judge Conahan. And I think that was the first peering into how important they thought it was, perhaps, to tell their side of the story.
On Judge Ciavarella's zero-tolerance policy
He ran on a platform in 1995 of being tough on juvenile crime and ... was elected in 1996 for his zero-tolerance position. And he was re-elected again for a second 10-year term.
The community applauded him. Schools applauded him. Police applauded him. He would go into schools and he would warn kids, "If you come before me, I will send you away." And so schools invited him year after year to come in and talk to them.
So when a kid came before him and there was a "school crime" — this could be a kid getting into a fight, [or] in our case we had a girl who did a fake MySpace page ... he would say, "Do you remember me being in your school?" ... And he would say, "I said I would send you away. Get 'em out of here." And that's pretty much what would happen.
On the judges' perspective of the scandal
Judge Ciavarella in particular said: "Look, this was a finder's fee. We needed this center built. I was always yelling at kids because that's what they needed because parents didn't know how to be parents and so forth. So what's the big deal now? I mean, everybody was celebrating me all these years and now they're not happy with me anymore just because I took this money?"
I don't think he quite grasps the connection that people are making.
On community reactions to the film
We have screened the film all around the country ... to both movie-goers and also folks that are very familiar with the juvenile system. ...
And I think what we see from people who sort of know the system and people who don't, we have the same reaction: They're emotional. They're emotional and they're outraged. And in so many places around the country we have people saying, "That's happening here!" It's just that maybe there aren't millions of dollars involved. Maybe that's the difference.