Forget, for the moment, the pros and cons of extending the federal payroll tax cut that has put hundreds of extra dollars in the pockets of Americans during a prolonged period of economic weakness. There are legitimate debates to be had over that program, which Congress extended for two months on Friday after days of pointless obstruction.
Instead, consider how Congress -- and, in particular, the House of Representatives -- is handling its obligations to Americans. Here's how: horrendously. Childishly. In what amounts to a religious fervor against -- well, something -- House Republicans are taking every opportunity to push the country to the brink of some form of disaster, whether it is defaulting on the nation's debts (last summer) or raising taxes on 160 million Americans, hitting lower-income citizens especially hard (this week).
Congressional Republicans have painted themselves for years as the party devoted to lower taxes, but it turns out its enthusiasm is largely aimed at saving money for the wealthy. It fends off all efforts to allow the expiration of the fiscally destructive Bush tax cuts -- which even some wealthy Americans acknowledge as unfair -- but argues about whether to extend a tax cut that actually helps those who are less well off -- and who will quickly inject those dollars into the economy.
That leaves only two explanations, either or both of which could be true:
The current crop of congressional Republicans truly is the party of the wealthy, with its devotion to tax cutsdepending on who will benefit. Non-millionaires need not apply.
Republicans simply want to oppose President Obama, and are willing to undermine the nation's interests if, in doing so, they can weaken him politically.
Those aren't novel observations, but with their mindless opposition to the two-month extension of the payroll tax cut, House Republicans exposed their dysfunction for the nation to see. What some critics (and maybe even sympathizers) once suspected, they now know: House Republicans can't be counted on to act in the nation's interest if, instead, they can hope to weaken Obama.
It's not that a one-year extension wouldn't have been preferable -- as both Republicans and Democrats agree -- but Congress ran out of time to close significant differences over how to fund the tax cut. The responsible course -- and the politically astute one -- was a two-month extension, to avoid penalizing tens of millions of Americans who would have seen their taxes jump on Jan. 1. Senators of both parties understood that, but the House's Republican robots operate on automatic. They can't help themselves.
Sometimes, leaders have to make a stand. That's honorable and valuable to a democracy. But constant, unrelenting brinkmanship is no way to run a country. Indeed, it is the sign of politicians who are bereft of any other idea -- blinkered leaders who have no conception of the bigger picture, whether it is the nation's interests or even their own.
House Republicans are dug in, and it is difficult to imagine any respite from their conduct as the nation enters a presidential election year. If nothing else, though, it will give voters something meaty to consider.