Governing on Empty

(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio walks of the floor of the House chamber on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011, in Washington. The House rejected legislation to extend a payroll tax cut and jobless benefits for two months, drawing a swift rebuke from President Barack Obama that Republicans were threatening higher taxes on 160 million workers on Jan. 1.

The Senate, having struck its compromise, has gone home. The House, controlled by delusional Republicans, has gone home. Payroll taxes are slated to rise, and unemployment insurance is set to expire before they return in January.

The compromise wasn’t just between the two parties in the Senate, apparently. According to Wednesday’s Washington Post, House Speaker John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor met with Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell on Friday and told him they’d get the votes to pass the two-month extension deal he’d worked out with Harry Reid. Boehner and Cantor now say they made no promises, but McConnell certainly thought they did, and, as the Post story notes, “McConnell, a 27-year member of the Senate … has no history of communication errors.”

But Boehner, who is turning out to be the weakest speaker since the House was first gaveled to order in 1789, couldn’t hold his troops, whose caucus meetings, by numerous accounts, increasingly resemble the pep rallies of cults that have lost all feel for how other humans think. This Monday, Gallup reported that Congress’ approval rating was at its lowest level ever—11 percent, roughly that of door-to-door salesmen peddling The Communist Manifesto. It has been falling all year long, ever since the Tea Party class of 2010 showed up determined to agree to nothing. But congressional Republicans are either in deep denial of how the public perceives them, or view themselves as human sacrifices (to be consumed by the fires of popular disgust in next year’s election) to a noble cause, as their growing identification with the Scottish rebels of Braveheart makes increasingly clear.

The current House Republican talking point is that a two-month compromise won’t solve anything, that they want to extend the payroll tax cut for an entire year. But this summer, they were disavowing any interest in extending the tax cut at all. “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” said Dave Camp, the Michigan Republican who chairs the Ways and Means Committee. Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan complained that extending the tax cut “would simply exacerbate our debt problems.” Of course, the Republicans had made huge cuts to the income tax, chiefly benefiting the rich, during George W. Bush’s first term, and expressed no concern about the cuts’ effect on the nation’s debt. With Democrats highlighting the fact, however, that the Republicans had finally found a tax cut they opposed—a tax on working people—Republicans discovered that in fact they supported extending the payroll tax cuts after all.

Now Democrats will highlight the fact that House Republicans refused to reach a deal to let that extension go through. The prospect of the Democratic attacks resonating compelled McConnell to reach a deal and apparently compelled Boehner and Cantor to go along with it until their caucus said no. The prospect of Democratic attacks has compelled a number of Republican senators to criticize their House colleagues for blocking the compromise. But in the House, the Republicans have chosen to be martyrs to the cause of raising taxes on all but their richest constituents. They’re lemmings for plutocracy.

But will the Democrats cave? Why should they? If the Republicans cave, the Democrats can claim victory. If the Republicans don’t cave, the Democrats have a grand issue to campaign on. The Democrats don’t even have to grow a spine—just not lose their brains. That, we must hope, they can do.

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