Debate & Dysfunction in DC

The fight over how to extend the payroll tax cut displays something profoundly misguided about our contemporary politics. On the one hand, the House Republicans are not wrong when they say that Congress should do its work, and its work is to find a way to extend the payroll tax cuts for a full year and stop with the Mickey Mouse compromises like the Senate bill which only guarantees the issue will be re-addressed in two months. On the other hand, the Senate leaders are correct to note that they achieved a broad bipartisan consensus on this particular bandaid and that such a consensus should not be easily cast aside.

On the larger, underlying issue of how to pay for the payroll tax cut extension, both sides are convinced that they have the full and complete truth. The Republicans believe that any tax cuts should be offset by cuts in spending. The Democrats believe that the middle class tax cut should be paid for by enacting a surcharge on the wealthiest of the wealthy, those making more than $1 million per year. You know where my sympathies lay in that debate.

But, when two different sides in a debate are convinced that they, and they alone, have a monopoly on the truth, and that they cannot compromise without somehow betraying truth itself, that is when democracy runs into a rough patch.

The whole fight puts me in mind of a discussion we had about my mother’s funeral arrangements. We needed to designate charities to which people could make a contribution in memory of my mother. The choice of our parish was an easy one: My mother had been baptized at Our Lady of Lourdes church, made her first communion and first confession there, been confirmed and married there, and would, in a few days time, be buried from that church. The physical doors of that church were, for my mother, the door opening to the throne of grace. But, of course, some non-Catholics might wish to make a contribution but, for whatever reasons, not wish to write a check to a Catholic church. I wanted to designate our town’s library as the secular beneficiary. My mother had volunteered there after she retired from teaching and spent many days helping our town’s residents find books they would like, encouraging children to read, and also undertaking the unglamorous work of cataloguing and re-shelving books. My sister, however, had recently has a spat with one of the librarians. She proposed that we designate the town’s fire company and ambulance corps. They had come to our home on several occasions when my mother had fallen or taken ill. My grandfather has started the town’s fire company in the 1920s. I was convinced that the library was closer to my mother’s heart, that if she had thought to designate a secular beneficiary before she died, she would have chosen the library, that the truth of the matter was on my side. But, I also knew that having a fight with my sister was a very bad idea, especially as it would grieve my father who was at that moment suffering with more than enough grief. So, instead of making my argument, I nodded and said, “Yes, the fire company will be fine.”

Of course, politics is not only the art of the possible. Over the past two days, I have spent an enormous amount of time in the car, Tuesday driving up here to Connecticut and yesterday driving around New Hampshire. (Look for the first print edition of NCR for my report on the New Hampshire primary!) Several of the talk shows focused on Havel, and of course he more than any other political figure of our time understood that politics must be about truth, that politics must be moral, that it cannot be only about the art of the possible. But, Havel was not talking about tax policy. Of course, our politics must be grounded in ethics and our ethics must be grounded in truth claims. But that does not mean that every policy discussion needs to become a battle over first principles.

It should not be news to Speaker Boehner that the U.S. Senate, especially in recent years, has become increasingly unworkable. But, that evidently is news to the Tea Party caucus in the House, and it is they who are keeping Boehner’s feet to the fire. For them, every battle is cosmic in character, every compromise a betrayal, every issue colored with apocalyptic overtones. They are wrong and it is Boehner’s job to explain to them that they are wrong or, in the alternative, back away from the principle established by former Speaker Danny Hastert that no issue goes to the floor for a vote unless a majority of the GOP members supports it.

The White House must not only make its case for the extension of the payroll tax cut on the merits, it needs to present its case as a pragmatic approach to helping get the economy jump-started, and to draw contrast with the GOP not only on tax policy but on this fundamental difference in approaches to governance: pragmatism versus ideology. When you go back to FDR’s great speeches, you recognize not only a populist edge, but also a commitment to pragmatism, to seeing government as an instrument in the hands of the people to try and fix what ails the nation. FDR was smart enough not to promise that every policy would work, nor that all his policies cumulatively would heal the Depression. He promised that the government would keep trying.

Both houses of Congress should return to Washington on the 26th of December and keep trying.

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