Congress has effectively delivered to millions of Americans a very un-merry lump of coal for Christmas by the inability of Democrats in the Senate and Republicans in the House to reach agreement on an extension of the payroll tax break and unemployment benefits. If retailers were counting on some last-minute shopping to carry them, Congress has pretty much nailed that door shut.

Congress has effectively delivered to millions of Americans a very un-merry lump of coal for Christmas by the inability of Democrats in the Senate and Republicans in the House to reach agreement on an extension of the payroll tax break and unemployment benefits. If retailers were counting on some last-minute shopping to carry them, Congress has pretty much nailed that door shut.


Come Jan. 1, payroll taxes will jump back to 6.2 percent of wages from the current 4.2 percent, meaning some 160 million U.S. taxpayers will have on average $1,000 less annually to do with as they see fit. Benefits for 2.2 million long-term unemployed will vanish. Medicare payments to physicians will drop, so seniors may find it more difficult to get treatment.


The Senate has gone home for the holidays. House Republicans say they're willing to work through them. Don't hold your breath between now and New Year's.


The whole thing is odd, because both sides had agreed in principle that the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits should be extended. The only element of the plan on which they differed was for how long. Majority Democrats in the Senate who traditionally would be all over what is essentially some relief for the much-pummeled middle class settled with Republicans in the Senate on just two months, which doesn't make much sense. Majority Republicans in the House who've been screaming about deficits and the unhealthy incentives provided by long-term jobless benefits wanted a year.


It's doubly odd because Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform had given the Republicans who'd signed his "taxpayer protection pledge" - virtually all of them - a special dispensation to return the payroll tax to its previous level, arguing that "not continuing a temporary tax cut" is not a tax increase. Of course, that is wholly inconsistent with his position on ending the likewise "temporary" Bush-era income tax cuts for the wealthy and returning them to Clinton-era rates. Apparently Norquist is of the impression that he alone gets to define what constitutes a tax hike and what doesn't. For better or worse, any mandate from government that takes more money out of Americans' pockets is a tax increase. It is what it is. If you're one of the 162 million Americans held hostage by this gridlock, maybe you should blame Norquist.


And it's triply odd because not extending the payroll tax cut does have its justifications, the most legitimate among them being that the reduction deprives Social Security of revenue that is not recoverable and that the social insurance program will need someday - unless you re-route other revenues to make up the difference, which Republicans say they'd found. Yet up until recently precious few on Capitol Hill were making that argument.


Hanging over everything, of course, are next year's elections. They were especially cognizant of that in the House, where they went out of their way to avoid a straight up-or-down vote for fear of creating the impression they were rejecting a tax cut. Instead they used a procedural maneuver to make the vote all about the deficiencies of the Senate bill in an attempt to camouflage their role in the outcome, which is a tax increase. At the same time, they voted to create a negotiating committee so the House and Senate can find common ground. Has no one heard of the utter failure of the so-called Super Committee charged with recommending a way out of this spending-and-borrowing suicide mission Uncle Sam is on? Are their memories that short?


Meanwhile, perhaps the most disingenuous thing said about this whole debacle came from President Obama: "This is not poker, this is not a game, this shouldn't be politics as usual." Of course it's a game, or he'd urge his fellow Democrats in the Senate to return to Washington and resolve this. So cut the difference between two and 12 months and settle on six or seven. Of course that would really put everybody on the election-year spot when the issue returns in June or July, 2012, and no one wants that.


This latest development merely confirms that Congress is broken. Apparently no one is really interested in the nation's most pressing need right now - economic growth - with this vote having the potential to produce the opposite. Instead they'd prefer to blame the opposition for the lack of it, all in hopes of gaining electoral advantage on the bet voters will hate and hold accountable the other side more than theirs. Americans should not be fooled.


Journal Star of Peoria, Ill.