It turns out that there is a limit to the oldest cynical political strategy — saying one thing, doing the opposite and then claiming credit for both. The holiday cave-in by House Republicans demonstrates it.
All year long, led by its congressional freshman class and Tea-Party wing, the party talked about the plight of middle-class families while voting for the rich and corporations, talked about economic growth while voting to stymie it, and proclaimed its dedication to low taxes while scheming to let them go up, at least for working people.
The strategy became unglued Christmas week when the House had to capitulate to President Obama and the Senate, with considerable damage to the party and its election prospects, which was opposite to its purpose. The strategy was supposed to do in President Obama, who had cooperated with the Republican strategy all year long until the Christmas season.
Our Arkansas members of Congress played a small and unproud role.
Let it be said that few Republicans actually think that working people ought to pay a lot more taxes, although the party seemed to embrace that idea last summer when House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and the party's leading presidential candidate at the time, Michele Bachmann, complained that almost half of Americans — the poorest half — were skating by and paying no federal taxes. The statistic was not even close to being correct although it was true that the Obama tax cuts in 2009 left 47 percent of Americans, including the elderly, the disabled, the unemployed and people with very low take-home pay, owing no federal income taxes for 2009 and 2010 but paying plenty other taxes.
Soon after taking office, Obama got Congress to temporarily reduce taxes for Social Security and Medicare to put more money into people's pockets and help spend the country out of recession, a proven trick for the past 80 years. But after the devastating 2010 election, Obama could not get Republicans to go along with extending the low payroll taxes until he agreed not to restore taxes on the rich to their 2001 levels. Obama's own party was furious at his surrender. He had campaigned on the promise to close the federal budget deficit by restoring taxes on high incomes and closing corporate tax loopholes.
Then in August House Republicans and the filibuster faction in the Senate threatened to shutter the government and plunge the nation into bankruptcy by refusing to raise the debt ceiling. Arkansas's three Republican congressmen, Rick Crawford, Tim Griffin and Steve Womack, were in the vanguard. Crawford declared that he would not vote to raise the debt ceiling and incur a dime's more debt. But Obama agreed to a deal with Republican leaders in the House and Senate. In exchange for his dropping a plan to restore slightly higher taxes on millionaires and agreeing to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits and other programs in the future, they raised the debt ceiling through the end of 2012. Our men changed their votes, too.
So the expectation was that the president would fold anytime his back was to the wall. With the lower payroll taxes expiring this week, Obama wanted Congress to extend the low rates a while longer to avert the country's sliding back into recession. Some 160 million Americans — more than 1.5 million of them in Arkansas — would see their 2012 take-home pay fall by an average of $1,000.
Nowadays, Congress is supposed to pay for these things by raising taxes somewhere else or cutting spending. Obama wanted to pay for it with a temporary surtax on multimillionaires. In Arkansas, fewer than 2,500 people, those with adjusted net incomes over $1 million in 2012, would pay 2.1 percent more in taxes so that some 1.5 million would keep a little more of their wages.
The House balked. Republicans in the Senate worked out a deal with the president and Democrats to continue the tax cuts and extended unemployment benefits until March 1 to give everyone more time to work out an agreeable plan for the whole year. House Speaker John Boehner agreed to the plan and the Senate adopted it, 90-10. But when Boehner went back to his caucus he faced rebellion from the tea party and freshmen.
Congressman Crawford termed the deal "irresponsible" and called on the House to defeat it. It did. Crawford, Griffin and Womack voted "no." Womack held a news conference Tuesday before Christmas to praise himself and his fellow freshmen for being tough.
But a tidal wave was in motion. Obama refused to budge further. Even the right-wing Wall Street Journal editorial page condemned the House Republicans, saying they had sabotaged the party's chances in 2012 by putting the GOP foursquare for higher taxes on 99 percent of Americans and refusing to compromise. Senate Republicans were horrified.
The next day Crawford deleted the word "irresponsible" from his published statement of the day before and called on the speaker to take the deal. Boehner had already got the clear message that he should stand up to the teabaggers in his caucus. He held another conference call but this time did not allow Crawford, Womack, Griffin or anyone else to speak and he told them that he would hold another vote and this time he expected it to pass by unanimous consent. Not one objected.
Some deal it was, too. The Democrats had already caved on the millionaire tax cut — again — and accepted the Republican plan for paying for the payroll tax cut and jobless benefits. Instead of multimillionaires paying for it, middle-class people who buy or refinance their homes will pay for it over the next 10 years with a fee that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will charge loan originators.
Boy, that has to help the economy!
One more irony. Griffin claimed victory by saying that as part of the plan they had forced Obama to approve the Keystone XL pipeline — a great "job creator," he says — within three months.
He was exactly wrong. The president had made it clear that he would reject the pipeline if he were forced to decide before the kinks were worked out. Republican Nebraska was in revolt because the pipeline would carry the dirtiest oil in the world across the Ogallala aquifer, which supplies drinking water to the Great Plains. NASA's climate scientist said the pipeline would be the end game for global warming. The State Department said it could not complete its review within three months and would recommend disapproval.
But who cares about jobs as long as the president gets the blame?