Three freshman Republican congressmen who either represent Athens County now, or are likely to after the election next November, are defending their votes last week that critics say nearly resulted in a middle-class tax hike for 2012.
All three were among the Tea Party House Republicans who on Dec. 21 voted down the U.S. Senate's two-month extension of the 2 percent "payroll tax holiday" (to continue at 4.2 percent rather than 6.2 percent). They include Reps. Bob Gibbs of Lakeville, 18th District, Bill Johnson of Marietta, 6th District, and Steve Stivers of Upper Arlington, who will be representing most of Athens County in the new 15th District.
Stivers is being challenged in November 2012 general election by Athens Law Director Pat Lang, a Democrat. Any other challengers for congressional seats have till this Friday to file petitions to run.
The votes by Gibbs, Johnson, Stivers and other Tea Party Republicans in the House effectively opposing a broad-based tax cut for millions of Americans drew strong criticism from Democrats, who juxtaposed this voted opposition to a middle-class tax cut to the House Republicans' refusal to consider any tax hikes for the rich.
In the Columbus Dispatch Sunday, U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Niles, slammed the freshman GOP House members for a breakdown in governing. "It's been a disaster, quite frankly," he said. "It has been an ideological group who hates government and doesn't think government has any role in society Ronald Reagan could not win a Republican primary right now" with the extremist slant of the party.
After withering criticism from other conservatives, including a Dec. 22 editorial in the Wall Street Journal and powerful Senate Republicans such as John McCain, the House on Friday passed an amended version of a two-month payroll tax cut extension. The vote ended a standoff on the $33 billion measure that will continue tax breaks for 160 million Americans, provide extended federal unemployment benefits for two months, and avoid a cut in payments to doctors who treat Medicare patients.
Both sides say they will seek to negotiate a full-year extension in the next two months.
The compromise cleared the Democratic-controlled Senate and the Republican-controlled House of Representatives by unanimous consent, which is a procedural move allowing the measure to pass, even though most members of Congress were already home for the holidays.
Weeks of partisan bickering ended Friday when House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, succumbed to political pressure including from Senate Republicans and GOP presidential candidates to stop blocking congressional approval of the two-month extension, which had been previously approved by the Senate in a bipartisan agreement.
So-called Tea Party Republicans had been pressuring Boehner to reject any compromise last week, similar to earlier this year when that faction of House Republicans pressured the House speaker into nixing a deal he had worked out with the president to increase the federal debt ceiling.
The payroll tax plan that passed last week will "keep in place a salary boost of about $20 a week for an average worker making $50,000 a year and prevent almost 2 million unemployed people from losing jobless benefits averaging $300 a week," according to the Associated Press.
Congress is expected to resume negotiations for a full-year extension when it reconvenes in January. The interim agreement produced essentially the same proposal that House Republicans rejected from the Senate Dec. 21, with a slight change to how payroll-reporting requirements work for small businesses.
Rep. Gibbs, whose 18th House District includes the northern portion of Athens County (but won't include it in 2013 as a result of redistricting), issued a statement that didn't mention his Dec. 21 vote against the Senate compromise on extending the payroll tax cut.
"I am glad that Congress finally reached an agreement that ensures working families will not see a tax hike on Jan. 1 and that small businesses will not be forced to deal with a complex new payroll reporting system," he said in a statement. "While I'm disappointed that Senate Democrats have so far refused to provide a full-year extension, I'm pleased that they agreed to go to conference to negotiate a long-term, full-year deal that provides certainty to American families, job creators, senior citizens and their doctors."
Rep. Johnson, whose 6th District currently includes most of Athens County (but will only include two southeastern townships of the county after redistricting), also issued a statement that didn't mention the controversial House Republicans initial vote against the two-month tax holiday extension.
"The American people are fed up with Washington's total inability to find solutions to difficult problems," he said in a news release after the Dec. 21 vote. "Instead, what invariably happens is what the Senate just did: Do enough to get by for the short term and kick the can down the road to deal with another day."
Johnson said that the American people are running out of patience with that type of mentality.
"Job creators and working families are begging for certainty from Washington," he said. "Instead, by irresponsibly amending the House's year-long extension on the payroll tax credit to only two months 60 days the Senate has introduced even more uncertainty for everyone. This is government at its worst."
In the Sunday article, Johnson told The Dispatch that he's proud of the budget-responsible influence that he and other freshman Republicans have brought to the House. The partisanship, he said, "is worse than I thought, though he then added that the freshman Republicans in the House most of them ushered in by Tea Party support "are totally unified on the issues of what we need to do and why we need to do it."
Rep. Stivers, whose newly drawn 15th House District, will include the great majority of Athens County, told the Dispatch that notwithstanding the frustration of governing, "I think when you talk to most of the freshmen, they feel like they're making a difference, and we feel like we've had an impact on Washington."
And despite polls showing Congress with the lowest approval rating in Gallup's 27-year history of asking this question (11 percent), Stivers insists that he and other freshman GOP House members continue to reflect the views of their constituents. "We came here with more of a fresh perspective than most members because we came out of really hard elections," Stivers told The Dispatch. "A lot of us talked to a lot of voters, so we knew what the American people wanted."
In spite of this, many political analysts have concluded that the take-no-prisoners' approach of the House Tea Party faction a strategy that has inarguably led to more partisanship and gridlock in Washington has played a significant role in the plummeting approval ratings of Congress.
In addition, analysts across the country have speculated that the GOP positioning on the issue has eroded the party's strength on the issue of lower taxes right at the time when they're gearing up to unseat a relatively unpopular Democratic president. Republican leaders had initially questioned the merit of extending the tax holiday for middle-class workers, and then asserted that a short-term plan would be more trouble that it was worth.
In its editorial from last Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal pointed out, "The GOP leaders have somehow managed the remarkable feat of being blamed for opposing a one-year extension of a tax holiday that they are surely going to pass. This is no easy double play. Republicans have also achieved the small miracle of letting Mr. Obama position himself as an election-year tax cutter, although he's spent most of his presidency promoting tax increases"
A press release from U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Lorain, said that Friday's compromise will extend a payroll tax cut for 5.7 million Ohioans and maintain unemployment insurance for 77,000 Ohioans.
"Now is not the time to raise taxes on Ohio families, workers, and small business owners," Brown said in his release. "Today, the extreme faction of the House of Representatives finally got that message. This should serve as a reminder that the economic security of Ohio households is too important to play political games with."
Brown said that had the extension failed to pass, Ohioans would have been paying an average of $1,000 more in taxes next year.
He said the deal also allows Ohio taxpayers to take home more of their paychecks each month and contribute to the local economy by buying goods and services.
"And because the compromise prevents unemployment insurance from being cut, it ensures that 77,000 jobless Ohioans can continue to pay their housing costs, keep their electricity and heating on, and buy groceries as they look for new work," he said.