An utterly dysfunctional House
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who famously lost budget battles to President Bill Clinton amid two government shutdowns, had some advice to House Republicans at loggerheads with another Democratic president: Give in.
Former Bush adviser Karl Rove said he agreed with the Wall Street Journal’s blistering assessment on the failure of House Republican leadership in the payroll-tax debate, and conceded that Republicans have “lost the optics” and should fold on the issue.
“I think the Wall Street Journal editorial hit it right on the nail, the question now is how do Republicans get out of it,” Rove told Fox News on Wednesday.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) echoed those concerns in an interview on CNN tonight, warning a resolution to the standoff must be found.
“It seems to me that Republican leaders and Harry Reid and the Speaker and Congresswoman [Nancy] Pelosi should sit down together with the administration and figure out a way through this,” the Arizona Republican said. “It is harming the Republican Party. It is harming the view, if it’s possible, any more of the American people about Congress. And we’ve got to get this thing resolved.”
It's a bloodbath. When you've got the single biggest expert on pissy government shutdowns, the top partisan strategist of your party, and even your once-loved, now-not-conservative-enough presidential candidate all admitting not only that the Republicans are on the losing side of the debate, but explicitly telling them to give up already, there's not much there that Congress can console itself with. The only question is, how did the House GOP get to this point?
The short answer is that I don't think even the House leadership knows quite how it happened. One minute Boehner was negotiating a two-month extension of the payroll tax cut and other measures; the next minute the House was in open revolt against that very plan. Well, that's not quite accurate: the hardliners were in open revolt over that plan, but that's not the reason the Republican leadership killed the vote on the issue, earlier this week. They killed the vote because the payroll tax cut extension was going to pass.
So we have a situation in which both parties wanted to pass a tax cut extension, but hostage-taking was so ingrained into the party that they had to hold it hostage just to see what they could get. Glory be, they even got quite a bit, thanks to the unending Democratic desire to give in on things, including the either executive-branch-shattering or completely pointless demand for a 60-day decision on the Keystone pipeline extension, some entitlement cuts, etc. And that's what they got just for extending the tax cut that everybody agreed they wanted for a measly two months.
You would think this might count as a victory. You would think so, but you're not a member of the House Republicans, a group so rabid with political rage at this point that if they were dogs, some poor kid would have to have gone all Old Yeller on them by now. Apparently not even the desire to cut taxes could compete with the dismal thought that President Barack Obama might gain a spot of good from it. The hardliners revolted, the slightly-less-hardliners said screw you, hardliners, but we can't vote against a tax cut, the entire caucus had a multi-hour, closed door brawl, and the whole thing went to bloody hell.
Last we saw him, then, perennial anti-everything crank Eric Cantor was left explaining that the House wanted the tax cut extension so very badly that they were outraged the Senate was sending them an extension for only two months, and so therefore they were just going to nix the whole thing. Yes. Yes, that's the ticket.
We have seen this before, in the debt limit fight. The House Republicans are at this point in such disarray that they literally cannot take yes for an answer. No matter what concessions they might squeeze from ever-pliant Democrats or from the White House, it isn't enough. Brinksmanship has become the only way the House can operate; if they're not threatening to shut something down (or the entire government down, if need be), they don't consider themselves to be negotiating properly.
I suppose it is to be expected. If you elect a bunch of people who believe that the only good government is a shredded, incompetent, barely-functioning one, you are going to end up with people determined to make good on those beliefs. Whether someone keeps getting a tax cut ten days from now is a load of nothing when compared to the previous round of jeopardizing the national debt rating, basic government functions, Social Security checks and dozens of other things. The supposed Super Congress was a joke from the moment of inception, and true to form, there was never a point where it even came close to success; there was literally no concession Democrats could make that would suffice, at least not one that would still leave the government in recognizable shape afterwards.
But forget compromise with Democrats, or the White House: the current fiasco is an entirely self-inflicted wound caused by Republican inability to even negotiate solutions among themselves. They want a tax cut, but insist on voting against it because it is insufficiently ransom-infused; they get the ransom and the tax cut, then block themselves from voting for it because that, too, is not ideologically pure enough. Yes, we can point out that this lower and mid-income tax cut is the only tax cut yet identified by Republicans as needing to be "paid for", after a decade or more of insisting tax cuts for wealthier Americans of course do not need any such balance.
Yes, we can point out that the payroll tax cut is itself a dubious and rather pro-Republican proposition to begin with, since it gives the impression that Social Security taxes are perhaps optional, which would be the first and only necessary step towards killing it off entirely. Point out whatever you like, it doesn't matter. One addled, self-contradicting press conference from John Boehner or Eric Cantor should put the lie to the thought that there is any deeper thought process at work here at all.
There was a payroll tax cut extension on the table. Even the House Republicans were going to vote for it, at least in small enough numbers for it to actually pass, so it had to be blocked by leadership because Obama wanted it. And screw even tax cuts, if Obama wants them too. Screw all of government, for that matter: anytime any bill passes both the House and the Senate, it is demonstration to the House GOP that they failed, and should have asked for even more.
Congress is, at this point, dysfunctional. There seems little room to argue against that. Even party stalwarts are citing this latest fiasco as evidence of House incompetence. Perhaps at the end of it Boehner will get the blame, and be tossed aside; I certainly do not expect the learned lesson to be one that shoves the House in the direction of moderation. Moderation is the same thing as failure, after all, and the best part about controlling a branch of government is that there are always, always, hostages to be ransomed.