Unless House Republicans come to their senses, it now seems likely that about 160 million Americans are about to get a tax increase that amounts to $1,000 for the average household and could knock down U.S. projected economic growth next year (already expected to be modest) by 25 percent.
How absolutely insane is that?
If the GOP devised a plan to make themselves look more irresponsible or more disinterested in the plight of average Americans and their thought-process more disordered, they could scarcely have devised anything more nefariously effective than what has happened in recent days to the proposed extension of the payroll tax break.
This isn't the usual spat between Democrats and Republicans on the Hill, with the former seeking higher taxes on the rich and the latter insisting on spending cuts. In the context of the payroll tax extension, that was largely resolved when Democrats took their millionaire tax plans off the table. Senate Republicans won that round.
In fact, Senate Republicans got pretty much everything they wanted from their Democratic colleagues. They even included a provision forcing the White House to make a decision on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline from Canada within 60 days.
That's probably why House Speaker John Boehner initially embraced the Senate plan — but quickly withdrew it after he found out he didn't have support of his caucus. So the House rejected the Senate's two-month extension on Tuesday, chiefly on the argument that they preferred a one-year deal.
Huh? The extension passed the Senate on an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote, with 90 percent of senators approving it, the kind of lopsided margin that almost never happens in that chamber. Of course a one-year plan is preferable. So is a long-term deficit reduction plan, something Congress and its supercommittee couldn't achieve this year either.
The House vote to refuse the Senate bill simply makes it more likely that no plan will pass. If that's the tea party-led chamber's true intention, then they ought to stand up and admit it and stop claiming to favor their own version of an extension.
This wholly unnecessary game of brinkmanship is not only destructive to the nation's economy (and especially hurts the unemployed and Medicare beneficiaries), but it is remarkably helpful to President Barack Obama's re-election efforts. And in the spirit of bipartisanship, we turn to our ultra-conservative brethren at the Wall Street Journal to emphasize this point.
"GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell famously said a year ago that his main task in the 112th Congress was to make sure that President Obama would not be re-elected," notes the Journal's December 21 editorial entitled, "The GOP's Payroll Tax Fiasco." "Given how he and House Speaker John Boehner have handed the payroll tax debate, we wonder if they might end up re-electing the president before the 2012 campaign even begins in earnest."
House Republicans may be driven far more by conservative ideology than their peers in the Senate, but that hardly explains how they can refuse what amounts to a bird in the hand for the prospect of nothing more than a handful of feathers in the bush. The Senate bill even reduces the federal deficit. Isn't that what tea party loyalists claim to want?
The truly amazing thing is that President Obama and Democrats haven't done much to distinguish themselves in this debate. Mostly, they've acquiesced to Republican demands. But in so doing, they've demonstrated themselves to be the only adults in the room — or at least the only political party that is still functional.
Perhaps if the tax extension does fail, the American people won't remember exactly who was responsible — or at least the House GOP can hope not. But even with the Republicans' valiant attempt at spin and obfuscation (saying, for instance, that the onus is on the Senate to act on their bill), it's difficult to see how the blame might be shifted.
If, on the other hand, the measure is somehow resurrected before year's end and the tax cut extended, voters might be willing to forget the momentary insanity. After snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, the GOP would at least look like they had their act back together, however belatedly.
But all that pales in comparison to the very real consequences of the measure's failure: Hundreds of dollars out of the pockets of Americans, reduced growth in 2012, a 27-percent cut in Medicare payments to doctors, a loss of jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed, and a deficit that is billions of dollars larger than it would have otherwise been.
To allow all those things to transpire when a solution, however temporary, was at hand is sheer madness. Or, to put it in short-hand: Democrats favor a tax cut while Republicans, who fought so hard to avoid a tax on those earning $1 million or more each year, now oppose a crucial break for the middle class. Even by Washington standards, such a turnabout defies belief.