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The payroll tax deal isn't a sign of a more harmonious Congress

February 16, 2012 |  5:30 am

House Speaker John Boehner and Rep Kevin McCarthy
Lawmakers appear to have settled what had been a bitter split over the payroll tax bill with neither brinkmanship nor acrimony. This development is so unlike the events of the last year, it might lead you to think that some comity -- and sanity -- had finally taken hold on dysfunctional Capitol Hill.

Don't kid yourself.

They may fight practically to their last breaths on everything else, but Democrats and Republicans have shown a willingness to strike deals on taxes when both sides are looking to cut them. Witness the blockbuster agreement in December 2010, when President Obama agreed to extend the entire package of Bush-era tax cuts in exchange for additional tax breaks for businesses and individuals. That measure, which reduced the payroll tax by 2 percentage points for 12 months, increased the projected federal deficits by trillions of dollars over the coming decade.

The only surprise about the payroll tax deal is that it took them this long to abandon the notion of paying for the tax cut. Not that it's a good outcome -- as The Times' editorial board observed Wednesday, "This week's move simply means that lawmakers face even tougher decisions in December, when the Bush-era tax cuts, the payroll tax reduction and a host of other temporary measures come up for renewal. At some point, lawmakers have to decide when to start filling the hole they're digging."

Granted, Republicans and Democrats still had to agree on how to pay for two other costly items in the payroll tax bill: continuing to provide extended federal aid to those who exhaust their state unemployment benefits, and canceling a scheduled cut in the fees paid to Medicare doctors. With the $100-billion payroll tax extension out of the picture, though, lawmakers were able to cover the rest of the cost with fairly noncontroversial spending reductions and one widely supported revenue raiser, the auctioning of more spectrum.

It would be nice to discover that lawmakers were becoming more pragmatic and less ideological as public esteem for Congress dropped to new lows. Republicans in particular threaten the party's top goal -- ousting Obama -- by enabling him to campaign against a "do-nothing Congress." Yes, there are two parties in the do-nothing Congress, and yes, I've heard the House GOP lament that the Democrat-controlled Senate is the problem. But blaming Democrats in the Senate isn't persuasive when a) Senate Republicans are waging a near-constant filibuster, and b) the House keeps passing bills that, after you get past their smiley happy titles, seem like little more than favors for corporate lobbyists. I mean, is the EPA's response to a massive coal-ash spill in Tennessee really one of the top 15 threats to the economy?

But I doubt that pragmatism is going to be the highlight of this election-year session. On the contrary, the proposed payroll tax cut deal happened because the two camps finally recognized that their ideologies were aligned. Republicans like to cut taxes, and Democrats like to portray themselves as the champions of working families. If the issue were whether to cut the tax on estates or investment income, the outcome would probably have been quite different.

The ideological split between much of the House GOP and most Senate Democrats over governing in general is likely to make the rest of the session feel as contentious and unproductive as last year's. A good example is the pending surface transportation bill. The House version is animated by the GOP argument that Problem No. 1 is the deficit and Problem No. 2 is excessive federal regulation (in this case, on domestic energy production). The bipartisan Senate version reflects two very different priorities: putting as many people to work and spending as much on infrastructure as possible.

In ordinary times, a highway bill is one of the least partisan pieces of legislation to hit the floor. That's true in part because of the hundreds of earmarks included to cement lawmakers' support. But these are not ordinary times, and there are no earmarks to paper over the differences in governing philosophy. That's why we'll probably end up with another stopgap extension of the program rather than a deal for a full-blown reauthorization.

If not, then maybe the corrosiveness and tension of last year's session has drained lawmakers' will to resist even the slightest compromise until the last possible minute. They might even agree to do something meaningful about the sluggish economy. But then, that would require them to agree on the source of the problem, so that's probably too much to hope for.

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Photo: House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) discusses the GOP's position on the payroll tax bill as the third-ranking House Republican, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), looks on. Credit: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

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