One photo snapped Wednesday on Capitol Hill captured the essence of Congress in 2011. It showed a group of senior House Republicans sitting on one side of a long table, waiting for their Senate counterparts to show up for a negotiating session the House had demanded. They knew that they wouldn't have anyone to negotiate with — the Senate had adjourned Saturday and its members had left town days earlier. Nevertheless, they wanted the public to see that they were ready to keep working to avert an increase in the payroll tax Jan. 1.
It was a cynical bid to claim the moral high ground in a crisis of their own making. What viewers should really have seen in the photo was the Republican leadership team whose miscalculations may soon cause payroll taxes to go up — and unemployment benefits to be truncated, and payment rates to Medicare doctors slashed. That's on the verge of happening because House GOP leaders couldn't persuade enough of their members to accept a two-month stopgap extension that the Senate had passed with strong bipartisan support.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) probably could have cobbled together enough Republicans and Democrats to pass the Senate bill, but that's not how they roll in this House. Instead, because he couldn't persuade a majority of his members to back the bill, he led a nearly united GOP bloc in voting down the stopgap bill and calling on the absent Senate to negotiate a full-year extension. That's the congressional equivalent of talking into a phone that's been disconnected and pretending there's someone on the other end.