The payroll tax fight and government by brinkmanship


It’s hard to believe, but the record-low approval ratings for Congress apparently aren’t low enough to satisfy congressional leaders. The public’s estimation of the country’s foremost legislative body — which has never been high, truth be told — plummeted this year after feuding lawmakers repeatedly pushed the government to the brink of shutting down. And now top Republicans and Democrats are doing it again, steering the government toward closure because they can’t resolve their differences over how to help the sputtering economy.

The conflict du jour centers on the looming expiration of a one-year cut in the payroll tax. The cut boosted workers’ weekly incomes by about $25, but it’s hard to tell how much of a difference it made in the economy. Nevertheless, leaders of both parties sensibly insist that they don’t want to allow the tax to rise while the recovery is still fragile.

At least, that’s what they’ve been saying. What they’ve been doing tells a different story. Democrats sought to pay for the continuation of the cut by temporarily hiking taxes on Americans with million-dollar incomes. They’ve proposed variations of the same tax to pay for an assortment of recent initiatives, knowing that Republicans would block them. That suggests they’re more interested in scoring political points than in actually extending the payroll tax cut.


Meanwhile, House Republicans passed a bill Tuesday to extend the payroll tax cut and avert a disastrous cut in payments to Medicare doctors. But the measure was loaded with controversial, poorly vetted and, in several cases, wrong-headed provisions on environmental regulation, spectrum auctions, energy policy and unemployment insurance. Rather than searching for middle ground on these issues, the House GOP is trying to force Senate Democrats into a take-it-or-leave-it choice.

In response, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has threatened to block a separate bill to fund the government through September. It’s a role reversal for Reid, who has spent much of 2011 dealing with Republicans’ willingness to shut down the government unless Democrats agreed to deeper spending cuts. This sort of hostage-taking is repulsive no matter who’s doing it. No wonder the public has little respect for Congress — it’s incapable of governing without resorting to the bureaucratic equivalent of death threats.

As we’ve said before, Congress could and should have averted the impasse over payroll taxes and government funding by adopting a fiscal blueprint that combined short-term measures to promote growth with long-term steps to reduce the deficit. That task proved too difficult for a “super committee” of members handpicked by congressional leaders. As long as lawmakers have no plan for how to deal with the deficit, the debt and the slack economy, however, they’ll just keep stumbling from impasse to impasse.