Payroll tax cut in danger: Would Nancy Pelosi have gotten it passed?

Payroll tax cut advocates had hoped a Senate deal Saturday would keep the Social Security payroll tax cut in effect for 2012. But the House, under Speaker John Boehner, it set to reject the deal. 

Susan Walsh/AP
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio gestures during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington Thursday.

Whatever the uncertainty surrounding the future of the payroll tax cut – and much remains uncertain – this much seems plain: If Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D) of California was still the speaker of the House, the debate would be over by now.

This is not an indictment of the leadership of current House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio, nor is it an acknowledgment that Democrats, in general, have been quicker to endorse an extension of the payroll tax cut.

It is an acknowledgment that what happened Saturday night would never have happened if Congresswoman Pelosi were still holding the reins of the House. 

This is what happened. 

The Senate, as is its habit, hammered out a compromise. No one wants the payroll tax holiday passed last year to end. It trimmed Social Security payroll taxes from 6.2 percent to 4.2 percent, thereby giving the average American a $1,000 tax break. 

True, it was intended as a one-year measure to help hurting Americans, but temporary tax cuts rarely remain temporary. So the Senate agreed to extend the payroll tax cut two months – a bill that allowed them to go home and hang their stockings without having to solve the tough question of how to pay for the tax break.

What happened next was pure Boehner. He called the members of the House and asked them what they thought. 

What he heard was not positive. Based on those talks, he said House and Senate leaders should discuss how to extend the payroll tax cut for a full year – not just two months.  

"How can you do tax policy for two months?" Boehner said on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday. "It's time to do this the right way."

The problem: The Senate left Washington Saturday and is not planning to return until next year. What this means is that, for the moment, the hope of extending the payroll tax cut before the end of 2011 appears dead. 

The story might seem to be typical Washington gridlock, but it is not. A House speaker asking his representatives what they think about a politically important bill – one that could backfire on his own party come election time – might not seem such a momentous thing. But in the world of the House of Representatives, it is akin to turning over the car keys for drinking a Shirley Temple.

Historically, you see, House speakers have not been made in the mold of listeners. Dr. Phil, for example, would likely have made a terrible House speaker.

House speakers get things done. More often, it is the rank and file that does the listening. Then, when the time comes, the rank and file votes as they are told. By this measure, Pelosi was a classic House speaker.

From the outset, though, Speaker Boehner has been different. Even before the midterm elections, he vowed to let the House "work its will" if he were elected speaker. As a legislative ideal, there is a nobility to that – respecting the value of each legislator. From a practical standpoint, however, it can seem complete chaos.

On one hand, Boehner's hand has been forced. He has taken control of the House on the back of tea party-backed freshmen who are in no mood to be dictated to. Yet Boehner's gentle hand on the rudder seems to be more a case of a perfect marriage than a strategic concession. Boehner wants robust debate, and his freshman want to give it to him.

Why else would he call his caucus and ask them what they felt about the Senate deal?

But it has opened him to criticism. Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada says he worked out the Senate deal in good faith with Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, the The New York Times reports. It adds that Senator Reid thought Boehner would give any bipartisan deal his blessing. 

Unfortunately for the Senate, the House rank and file did not, and Boehner listened to them rather than trying to force through the Senate bill in the House. 

"It's pretty clear I and our members oppose the Senate bill," Boehner said on "Meet the Press." He added, "I believe two months is just kicking the can down the road."

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