Dysfunction in the House

One photo snapped Wednesday on Capitol Hill captured the essence of Congress in 2011. It showed a group of senior House Republicans sitting on one side of a long table, waiting for their Senate counterparts to show up for a negotiating session the House had demanded. They knew that they wouldn’t have anyone to negotiate with — the Senate had adjourned Saturday and its members had left town days earlier. Nevertheless, they wanted the public to see that they were ready to keep working to avert an increase in the payroll tax Jan. 1.

It was a cynical bid to claim the moral high ground in a crisis of their own making. What viewers should really have seen in the photo was the Republican leadership team whose miscalculations may soon cause payroll taxes to go up — and unemployment benefits to be truncated, and payment rates to Medicare doctors slashed. That’s on the verge of happening because House GOP leaders couldn’t persuade enough of their members to accept a two-month stopgap extension that the Senate had passed with strong bipartisan support.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) probably could have cobbled together enough Republicans and Democrats to pass the Senate bill, but that’s not how they roll in this House. Instead, because he couldn’t persuade a majority of his members to back the bill, he led a nearly united GOP bloc in voting down the stopgap bill and calling on the absent Senate to negotiate a full-year extension. That’s the congressional equivalent of talking into a phone that’s been disconnected and pretending there’s someone on the other end.

A dysfunctional organization is one that cannot do what it says it wants to do, even though it is clearly capable of doing it. This Congress was borderline dysfunctional during the debate last summer over raising the debt ceiling; it eventually did raise the limit, but it flirted with default long enough to prompt Standard & Poor’s to downgrade the country’s perfect credit rating for the first time. It will cross the border into fully dysfunctional if it allows the payroll tax to rise, extended unemployment benefits to elapse and Medicare payment rates to be cut despite the stated wishes of its leaders and most of its members.

If House Republicans weren’t sold on renewing the expiring provisions, they should have debated those issues on the floor. But most lawmakers accepted the argument that the economy isn’t strong enough yet to raise taxes on employees by about $120 billion and eliminate some $44 billion in unemployment benefits. House Republicans contend that a two-month payroll tax extension will cause more confusion than threatening not to extend the tax cut at all, but that’s just absurd. The House’s decision to reject the bill was petulant and politically toxic. We’ve said it before, but it’s worth saying again: The House should approve the Senate compromise and go home.