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Congressional GOP Sticking to Petty Game Plan

In a year of many horrific comments and acts of political misbehavior, we have a new winner for lunacy: the Pima County, Ariz., GOP’s move, in Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ district, to auction off a Glock 23, a gun similar to the one used to maim the Democrat and kill many others, as a fundraising stunt. If anything demonstrates the era of breathtaking insensitivity and partisan rancor more than that, I don’t want to know about it.

It almost makes the petty games in Washington, D.C., last week — when for the first time ever a chamber of Congress rebuffed a president seeking a joint session of Congress after the White House apparently failed to do its due diligence to set the date and time in advance — seem, well, petty.

And that they were. The excuse Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) offered for demanding a date change — that the first House votes were set for 6:30 p.m., giving insufficient time to ready the chamber for a 8 p.m. presidential speech — was especially flimsy, given that the votes were apparently on suspension matters. But that does not excuse the White House from failure to clear the date in advance.

My guess is that the administration’s choice of today was less about trumping a Republican presidential debate and more about avoiding a highly heralded speech during the opening game of the NFL season, especially because that game, Green Bay vs. New Orleans, will be a big draw (with far more of the viewers the president wants to attract than those watching a presidential primary debate.)  Tuesday night, right after Labor Day, was a nonstarter, as was Friday night.

Today made more sense. But it is a minor matter in the larger sweep of things, except to the degree that it reflects a substantial lack of trust between the Speaker and the president, something evident especially after Boehner got cold feet and abandoned the grand bargain on the table during the negotiations over the debt limit.

That move led inexorably to the debacle over the debt limit that followed, and to the condemnation by Standard & Poors and by Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke of the unprecedented games played in the process by Congressional Republicans. And the debt limit shenanigans also have contributed mightily to the continuing economic malaise; surveys show that confidence in the system and optimism about the future took a major hit with the showdown, leading in turn to a drop in consumer spending, which further slows the economy and provides a major deterrent to businesses creating new jobs.

One might think an unprecedented cut in America’s credit rating, the unusually blunt criticism of the Fed chairman and economic turmoil might cause leaders who deliberately precipitated the confrontation over the debt limit to think twice. Nah. Here was Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s reaction as expressed to Neil Cavuto of Fox News: “It set the template for the future. In the future, Neil, no president — in the near future, maybe in the distant future — is going to be able to get the debt ceiling increased without a reignition of the same discussion of how do we cut spending and get America headed in the right direction. I expect the next president, whoever that is, is going to be asking us to raise the debt ceiling again in 2013, so we’ll be doing it all over.”

This was an example of McConnell’s remarkable candor about his willingness, indeed eagerness, to use ordinary vehicles in extraordinary ways to accomplish his No. 1 objective, the defeat of President Barack Obama in 2012. The Kentucky Republican calibrates his position on this front only if there is a conflict with his other main goal, to bring a Republican majority into the Senate next year. He was equally candid when he said that it was necessary to reach a deal on the debt limit — because failure to do so would be blamed largely on Republicans.

We can see this mindset at work when it comes to the issue of a temporary payroll tax cut. Here is what some prominent Republicans said in 2009 about the issue:

McConnell: “I’d have a payroll tax holiday for a year or two that would put taxes in the hands of everybody who has a job, whether they pay income taxes or not, and, of course, businesses pay the payroll tax, too, so it would be both a business tax cut and individual tax cut immediately.”

Boehner: “It’s clear that trying to get money back into the economy quickly, to preserve jobs and to create jobs has to be the goal, and fast-acting tax relief, we believe is the best way to do that.”

Sen. John McCain (Ariz.): “Earlier this year, I put forward a proposal to eliminate the 3.1 percent payroll tax for one year for all employees in order to put more money in every working American’s pocket during these difficult economic times. This would have been a real stimulus to our economy.”

Every Senate Republican voted for the temporary payroll tax cut. But here is what prominent Republicans are saying about the same policy now:

Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.): “I don’t think sugar-high economics works. We’ve sort of proven this already, a number of times. Temporary tax rebates don’t work to create economic growth. Permanent tax changes do.”

Rep. Dave Camp (Mich.): “I’m not in favor of that. I don’t think that’s a good idea. We need a more overarching approach to our tax policy.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.): “We don’t need short-term gestures. We need long-term fundamental changes in our tax structure and our regulatory structure that people who create jobs can rely on.”

What has changed? In 2011, Obama is for a temporary payroll tax cut. The permanent campaign mindset dominates politics in Congress right now. And it does not bode well for finding solutions to problems. Still, for reasons I will discuss next week, there is a small chance that the super committee “gang of 12” can actually craft its own version of the grand bargain. I will cling for now to that tiny hope to avoid plunging even deeper into dysfunction-driven depression.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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