The Republicans in control of the House of Representatives outdid themselves this week. In a politically tone-deaf trifecta, they refused to extend the payroll tax cut, agreed to allow unemployment benefits for more than 3 million jobless workers to expire and handed President Barack Obama a political victory.
Those moves took place in the context of election-year posturing between the House, the president and the Senate, where Democrats are in control. Their effects, however, would be quite real.
Absent further action, workers can expect to have 2 percent more money taken out of their paychecks beginning Jan. 1. In a related development, unemployment benefits will begin expiring at the same time. The Labor Department estimates 3.6 million workers will lose jobless benefits by the end of March.
The pain to affected individuals and families could be acute. More important, however, is the effect of those cuts on the overall economy. That 2 percent may not seem like much in the context of any given paycheck, but for someone making $25,000 per year, that works out to $500, and 160 million workers will pay it. Taken together, that is a lot of money to subtract from an economy still struggling to recover from the recession.
Add in the unemployment benefits that will not be sent out, and there will be that much less money circulating. All that would amount to another drag on the overall economy and could have a profound effect on already struggling businesses.
What is so confounding is that this entire scenario was both unnecessary and avoidable. The payroll tax originally was cut precisely to stimulate spending. And with the combination of the sluggish recovery and going into an election year, both parties supported extending it.
But the atmosphere in Washington now is so toxic that the two parties could not agree on something about which they agree even something about which they may still agree.
Everyone seems to have favored a one-year extension. House Republicans, however, kept adding unrelated conditions, such as approval of a controversial pipeline, reduced environmental regulations or cuts to discretionary spending.
Several theories have been advanced to explain that. One is the hope the Senate would kill the bill and Democrats would be blamed. Another is that some GOP members of the House did not want the tax cut to continue, reasoning that if it helped the economy it would benefit Obama at the polls. More likely is that they wanted simply to be seen standing up to the Democrats while also getting the cut passed.
The Senate, however, did not rise to the bait. On a bipartisan vote 89 to 11 it passed a two-month extension to the payroll tax cut and went home for Christmas.
The House might have passed it, too, but its leaders prevented a vote with a parliamentary maneuver and sent the bill back to the now-vacant Senate. The Wall Street Journal said this: The GOP leaders have somehow managed the remarkable feat of being blamed for opposing a one-year extension of a tax holiday that they are surely going to pass. This is no easy double play.
Congress is rarely pretty, but this was absurd. A bipartisan majority of the Senate wanted to extend the cut. A majority of the House probably did, too. But House diehards apparently would do anything rather than vote with Obama, even when they agree with him.
This is the politics of a suicide bomber. It has no place in the U.S. Congress.