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Charting a Path Forward

If the traditional description of the political parties wasn’t evident enough before the payroll tax/UI kerfuffle, it certainly is now: Democrats are evil and Republicans are stupid.  Democrats are evil for insidiously driving up the deficit, perpetuating unemployment, lying about Social Security and passing short-term unworkable Social Security tax holidays for political gain.  Republicans are stupid for a) having Mitch McConnell as Senate Leader and b) coming back to fight the evilness… but then failing to fight it.  They should have outflanked the Democrats on the tax cut and waged a separate battle over Unemployment Insurance (UI).  Instead they begged Democrats to come to conference with them, a losing proposition from day one.

Undoubtedly, there is a lot of blame to go around, with the lion’s share going to Mitch McConnell.  However, the important thing is to forge a strategy going forward into next year.

While everyone is focused on the payroll tax part of the deal, Democrats are quietly getting what they wanted vis-à-vis the UI program.

We were all aghast with indignation last year when we found out that an unprecedented 99 weeks of UI was inserted into the deal that extended the Bush taxes.  We kicked ourselves for allowing that travesty to pass and promised never to let it happen again.  Unfortunately, GOP leaders waited until it was too late to formulate a coherent principled stance against the entire premise of extending UI welfare.  They made a compromise to extend the long-term benefits, but gradually reduce eligibility by 40 weeks.  And, by George, it would be paid for.

Well, now that we foolishly agreed to tie UI benefits to the payroll tax issue, the fate of the UI extension is inexorably tied to the fate of the payroll tax cut.  Consequently, we will get the full 99 weeks in perpetuity…and it won’t be paid for.  If we were like Democrats, who put political gain ahead of country, we might be cheering the ancillary fact that this deal will help perpetuate unemployment and hamper Obama’s reelection efforts.  Another ancillary benefit of this payroll tax brouhaha is that Democrats will have no leg to stand on when they try to let the Bush tax cuts expire.

Unfortunately, ancillary benefits are all we have from this deal.

You see, once Republicans agreed to cave on the two-month extension yesterday, there was no need for them to commit to a conference on a long-term deal, which isn’t even long-term.  They should have started out fresh next year by dealing with the three issues (payroll taxes, UI, and Doc fix) separately in the House, and then ship them off to the Senate.  They should have demanded real long-term solutions, by either outflanking Democrats with a permanent abolishment of the payroll tax or a demand that we tackle Social security reform.  Assuming that Republicans in the Senate would hold the line against Democrat proposals (that might be a big assumption with McConnell at the helm), the House would, once again, reclaim their superior leverage as the only body that could pass a bill.

Instead, they agreed to a conference with Democrats and many squishy Republicans.  The outcome is already a forgone conclusion.  Along with another ineffectual temporary payroll tax cut extension, they will permanently consummate 99 weeks of unemployment into the entitlement empire.  And of course, the super-long UI benefits will not be paid for, at least not in a meaningful way.

During his press conference today, Harry Reid said (after praising McConnell for his treachery) that he was choosing conferees who would fight for full UI extension and against any cuts to the federal workforce.  So there you have it.  And one more thing – that conference report will be impervious to amendments, once again forcing conservatives into an up-or-down vote on two competing interests; a tax cut and permanent entitlement spending.  So either Democrats will get everything they want or we will be forced to play defense in blocking it.  What are we going to do next: tie a tax cut vote to legalizing gay marriage?

We look back at this year and forlornly recall all of the legislative failures; all of the lost opportunities.  It is clear that Republicans need to do some soul searching during the recess and decide whether they want to fight for limited government or not.  If they desire to fight on principle, then they should do so consistently, articulately, and coherently.  If they feel that – with control of just one house – they are impotent and helpless, they should stop setting themselves up for battles they are unwilling to win decisively.

This verse from Kings comes to mind: “And Elijah came unto all the people, and said, How long halt ye between two opinions? if the LORD [be] God, follow him: but if Baal, [then] follow him.”

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