How offended should we be that Congress is grandstanding about its decision over whether we get to keep $20 per week in our paychecks? Lawmakers are talking about the expiration of the payroll tax cut as if the middle class will descend into poverty without that extra $1,000 per year. Whether by Democratic design or bipartisan inertia, lawmakers are so dysfunctional that even though they agree that their paltry bribe is a good idea, they cannot agree to pay it.
Last Christmas we asked Will Next Christmas Be Better for the Unemployed? Now we know the answer. Last month the unemployment rate dipped, but otherwise 2011 was little better than 2010. Legislators and the president finished their year in much the same fashion as last year, by gifting the American people with threats of financial strife. These were Barack Obama’s words before Christmas 2010:
It would be a grave injustice to let taxes increase for these Americans right now. And it would deal a serious blow to our economic recovery.1
This is what the president is saying before Christmas 2011:
The issue right now is this: The clock is ticking; time is running out. And if the House Republicans refuse to vote for the Senate bill, or even allow it to come up for a vote, taxes will go up in 11 days.2
Where else but Washington can you refuse to do your job, reward those who support you with threats, and manage to stay employed? The standoffs in our Capitol dominated the headlines for much of the year, but when 2011 segues to 2012 and we look back at what lawmakers accomplished, their achievements are largely negatives and include America’s first credit downgrade.
How long do Harry Reid, John Boehner, Barack Obama, and Mitch McConnell think they can get away with crying wolf? Congress does not have the courage to let this dispute linger into their election year. It will be resolved at the eleventh hour, but like the debt ceiling negotiations and last Christmas’s joint payroll tax and unemployment benefits extension, the circus comes first. We will be allowed to scramble for the bits of bread tossed from Capitol Hill when everyone has had their fill of standing in front of the cameras, shaking their heads and announcing the newest roadblock.
If the key players are so out of touch that they believe we are distraught over losing $20 per week instead of worrying about losing our future because of their failure to address debt and spending, then they also underestimate how angry we are at the damage caused by a year of their antics.
The fighting over the payroll tax cut is not about helping the middle class. The middle class is an excuse to stage a pre-election turf war. Both parties are marking their territory like dogs in a junkyard.
In a Department of Labor blog post Secretary Hilda Solis said of the standoff that We are at a pivotal moment for the American worker and the American economy.³ She went on to say that:
I wish they [Republican House members] would honor their own principles and vote against a tax increase on the middle class.4
There is nothing pivotal about the payroll tax cut, and there is not a soul involved in this drama who could articulate what “principles” means. The $1,000 payout being shopped to the people is not going to rescue the middle class. Those relying on an extra $20 per week just to get by have worries a few extra dollars are not going to solve. The tax cut is a symbolic feint that distracts from the real problem of Congress’s inability to deal with the debt crisis that was all the rage after lawmakers precipitated last summer’s credit downgrade.
Instead of trying to extend a little cheer to a glum nation fed up with their theatrics, our lawmakers are closing the year by threatening to pound a seasonal holly stake through the hearts of the middle class, dashing any remaining hope that our government can agree to provide some value for taxpayers. When a tax cut deal is finally reached backs will be slapped and congratulations shared about historic compromise. Scotch will be slopped, and everyone will forget that the $20 per week we will not be paying would have gone to an entitlement that will run out of money without prompt action on debt and spending, something Congress has put off for another day.
So much theater in service to accomplishing so little.
1..The White House. Office of the Press Secretary. Statement by the President on Tax Cuts and Unemployment Benefits. December 6, 2010. http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2010/12/06/statement-president-tax-cuts-and-unemployment-benefits, retrieved December 21, 2011.
2.. The White House. Office of the Press Secretary. Remarks by the President on the Payroll Tax Cut. December 20, 2011. http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/12/20/remarks-president-payroll-tax-cut, retrieved December 21, 2011.
3..United States Department of Labor. The Official Blog of the U .S. Department of Labor. Beyond the Decimal and Political Points. December 19, 2011. http://social.dol.gov/blog/beyond-the-decimal-and-political-points/, retrieved December 20, 2011.