The House Republicans Lost Because They Deserved To Lose

Thanks to their own ineptitude, House Republicans suffered a big defeat this week. They totally deserved it.

Of all the words that have been written about the totally predictable resolution of the Payroll Tax Cut debacle, nobody gets its more correct that Charles Krauthammer, who deftly points out the utter absurdity of the entire debacle:

To begin with, what even minimally rational government enacts payroll tax relief for just two months? As a matter of practicality alone, it makes no sense. The National Payroll Reporting Consortium, representing those who process paychecks, said of the two-month extension passed by the Senate just days before the new year: “There is insufficient lead time to accommodate the proposal,” because “many payroll systems are not likely to be able to make such a substantial programming change before January or even February,” thereby creating “substantial problems, confusion and costs.”

The final compromise appears to tweak this a bit to make it less onerous for small business. But what were they thinking in the first place? What business operates two months at a time? The minimal time horizon for business is the quarter — three months. What genius came up with two? U.S. businesses would have to budget for two-thirds of a one-quarter tax-holiday extension. As if this government has not already heaped enough regulatory impediments and mindless uncertainties upon business.

But making economic sense is not the point. The tax-holiday extension — presumably to be negotiated next year into a 12-month extension — is the perfect campaign ploy: an election-year bribe that has the additional virtue of seizing the tax issue for the Democrats.


The House Republicans’ initial rejection of this two-month extension was therefore correct on principle and on policy. But this was absolutely the wrong place, the wrong time, to plant the flag. Once Senate Republicans overwhelmingly backed the temporary extension, that part of the fight was lost. Opposing it became kamikaze politics.

Note the toll it is already taking on Republicans. For three decades Republicans owned the tax issue. Today, Obama leads by five points, a 12-point swing since just early October. Theop payroll tax ploy has even affected his overall approval rating, now up five points (in six weeks) to 49 percent.

The Democrats set a trap and the Republicans walked right into it. By rejecting an ostensibly bipartisan “compromise,” the Republican House was portrayed as obstructionist and, even worse, heartless — willing to raise taxes on the middle class while resolutely opposing any tax increases on the rich.

House Republicans compounded this debacle by begging the Senate to come back and renegotiate the issue, thus entirely conceding the initiative to Majority Leader Harry Reid. But Reid had little incentive to make any concessions. House Republicans would have taken the fall for 160 million shrunken paychecks. Every day the White House would have demanded, in the name of the suffering middle class, that Republicans return from vacation and pass the temporary extension.

Having finally realized they had trapped themselves, House Republicans quickly caved, with help from a fig leaf contrived by Sen. Mitch McConnell.

The GOP’s performance nicely reprises that scene in “Animal House” where the marching band turns into a blind alley and row after row of plumed morons plows into a brick wall, crumbling to the ground in an unceremonious heap.

On the left, of course, there is plenty of crowing. Steve Benen, Greg Sargent, and Eugene Robinson are all making one variation of the argument that the Republicans caved and let Obama and the Democrats walk out of this as the party that wanted to cut taxes, thus ceding ground not only for the 2012 elections but the budget battles that must still be fought before then. They’re absolutely right.

Even if you accept the argument that the GOP was right on the policy here, they were completely behind the curve on the politics of it. First, there were many House Republicans opposed to the very idea of extending the Payroll Tax Cut, arguing for example that there was little evidence that it was actually doing anything to stimulate the economy and that it was only causing further damage to the Social Security Trust Fund.  These aren’t invalid arguments, but when it comes from the same people arguing against raising taxes on the very wealthy, it is a complete political non-starter and another opportunity for the Obama Administration to further cast itself as the protector of the middle class. Then, when the House finally decided to go ahead and pass a Payroll Tax Cut, it ends up in the Senate where it runs up against the problem of how to pay for it. Thanks largely to a lack of time to resolve differences, the Senate ends up passing a short-term extension that also includes something important to the GOP, a requirement that the Administration make a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline before the election. This deal was negotiated by Mitch McConnell, and everyone seemed to think that it had John Boehner’s at least tacit approval.

Once again, the Republicans in the House were right to criticize the idea of a two month extension. As I noted earlier this week,  payroll reporting companies are saying that it is going to cause them serious logistical problems, and even more problems for small businesses who handle their own payroll. What the House GOP refused to recognize, though, is that there simply wasn’t any way that a one-year deal was going to be concluded by the end of the year. It didn’t matter that they rejected the Senate bill. It didn’t matter that they appointed representatives for a House-Senate Conference Committee. The Senate was not coming back in session, and there’s nothing the House could have done about that. Once Mitch McConnell came out and basically sided with Harry Reid and Barack Obama over the House GOP, it was all over but the inevitable surrender. There was a proposal floating through the halls of Congress yesterday to extend the two-month extension to three months so that it would at least match up with the first quarter of the year, which is how most businesses calculate and pay their SSI taxes. If that proposal had been made on Sunday, maybe it would have had a chance, but it was too late. The GOP had lost a battle they never should have engaged in, and it was entirely their own fault.

Rick Moran sums it all up quite well:

Technically, Boehner is right. The scheme is indeed, unnecessarily complex and nearly unworkable.

But technicalities don’t mean squat when you’re in a political fight and you’re holding a pair of deuces while your opponent is flashing three queens. The Democrats, including the president, are following one of the oldest political maxims in history: Don’t get in the way when your opponent is in the process of destroying themselves.

It appears that the GOP is no longer a political party. Their members have bolted and decided to join the Hemlock Society.

Actually I think we saw that starting back in August when House Republicans were willing to take the nation to the brink of default because of their refusal to recognize the need to raise the debt ceiling. In that case, at least, they had the public on their side because, of course, raising the debt ceiling is always an unpopular move. This time, though, they shot themselves in the foot for no good reason at all. Instead of wasting a week on a fight they could not win, they should have just passed the two month extension, appointed conferees to meet with the Senate starting in January to get the one-year deal done, and gotten the heck out of down for the holidays. Instead, they hung on, bitterly clinging to a political point that nobody understood and nobody bothered to clearly explain. They lost, and they lost big. Whether they will realize that now or continue with their political ineptitude remains to be seen.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Deficit and Debt, Taxes, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Rob in CT says:

    If the Republicans lost every time they deserved to lose… ah, dreams. 😉

  2. Hey Norm says:

    As Jon Chait points out this is actually the third time House Republicans have attempted mass suicide…the first being the passage of Ryan’s Tea Party Manifesto…or Path to Prosperity as it is ironically titled.
    Since sweeping into Washington after the mid-terms the Tea Bag caucus has accomplished nothing. Zip. Zero. They did manage to get the deficit exploding Bush Tax Cuts extended for two years…but that came with further stimulus spending…so technically it was a wash. They also passed something about affirming the national motto…which was established in the mid 50’s and as far as anyone can tell was not being challenged by anyone.
    Approval rating before caving in? 11%. Nixon at the height of Watergate didn’t go below 23%.

  3. James says:

    Instead, they hung on, bitterly clinging to a political point that nobody understood and nobody bothered to clearly explain.

    That’s because the House GOP doesn’t care about policy. They simply wanted to prevent the White House from getting a “bipartisan” victory. It’s never been about the actual policy outcomes for the House GOP, it’s always been about, as Mr. McConnell put it, “making Obama a one-term president”.

  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    What business operates two months at a time?

    Wall Streeters seem to operate on a 30 second clock as far as I can tell.

  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Hey Norm:

    Since sweeping into Washington after the mid-terms the Tea Bag caucus has accomplished nothing. Zip. Zero.

    Norm, you forgot the light bulb! They saved the incandescent light bulb! They will ride that success to a historic election sweep. Mark my words, I said it first.

  6. Hey Norm says:

    @ Ozark…
    You are correct…I forgot.
    I’m just going to climb up onto my Stanley Steamer now and chug on down the double-rut road to town.

  7. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Hey Norm:

    You got a Stanley Steamer? I’m jealous. I still have to use my stubborn old MO mule.

  8. James in LA says:

    “Whether they will realize that now or continue with their political ineptitude remains to be seen.”

    I vote “ineptitude.” In three years, they have produced zero governing achievements on which to run. Abdication is not a policy position.

  9. ponce says:

    If it is that hard for a payroll company to change how they calculate how much tax to withhold from paychecks, its time to hire a company with competent programmers to replace it.

    India has hundreds of thousands of skilled programmers who could accomplish this task in about 5 minutes..

  10. Rob in CT says:

    Look, I admit that as someone who has to deal with this (we have a nanny), it’s mildly irritating to find oneself wondering: will they? won’t they? Ok, they did, but what will happen two months from now?

    Mildly irritating. Of course, I’m just writing checks for one employee. Then again, how hard is it really to make a minor change to a formula on an excel spreadsheet (withhold 5.65% instead of 7.65%)?

    So yeah, I’m back to mild irritation being the reasonable response here.

  11. Tlaloc says:

    Approval rating before caving in? 11%. Nixon at the height of Watergate didn’t go below 23%.

    Not really comparable since you are comparing an institution (or at least a subset of an institution) to an individual. Better would be to compare approval ratings of individual tea party congresscritters and better yet would be to compare approval ratings of the tea party congresscritters taken only from the areas they represent, since those are the only people they have to care about keeping happy.

  12. Hey Norm says:

    @ Tlaloc…
    No question…just used what I could find in a hurry.

  13. Mike says:

    Ay yi yi – the repugs didn’t criticize the two month extension on merit, they criticized it because it came from Obama. And, they’re not sure how to pay for it? What ever do they mean – republicans are constantly telling us tax cuts pay for themselves. why not this one?

  14. Well, you know. One subtext since the Obama victory has been “will the GOP win or self-destruct?”

    Little dramas like these might just be scenes in a larger play. 2011 and 2012 might give them the destruction they need, before they begin reinvention.

  15. Ben says:


    they’re not sure how to pay for it? What ever do they mean – republicans are constantly telling us tax cuts pay for themselves. why not this one?

    Remember, only tax cuts for rich people pay for themselves. Tax cuts that primarily help middle and lower classes are an abomination

  16. Skeeter Sanders says:

    “They [House Republicans] lost, and they lost big. Whether they will realize that now or continue with their political ineptitude remains to be seen.”

    It’s not political ineptitude. It’s ideological intransigence. The fact is the House Republican caucus has been hijacked by some 90-odd hard-line, Tea Party-backed, right-wing ideologues hell-bent in ramming through their agenda and to hell with what anybody else thinks.

    That kind of intransigence simply doesn’t work in a democracy. Now, many of those same hard-line ideologues are going to face GOP primary challengers even more extreme than they are.

    And given the fact that the Republican Party rank-and-file has become a mirror-image of what the Democratic Party was for most of its 200-plus-year history before the 1960s — overwhelmingly white, predominantly male, deeply conservative, most heavily concentrated in the South and considerably older than the national electorate at large — the GOP is well on a path of political self-destruction as America becomes more and more racially, ethnically and socially diverse.