All politics are financial

Nothing like an election year to bring home a basic notion about politics.

You’ve probably heard over the years that “all politics are local,” and that’s true to a large degree. Most U.S. voters are more concerned about whether the local government makes sure that their garbage is picked up on time than what the officials inside the beltway are fighting about. But if you really want to get a voter’s attention, do something that affects his or her wallet.

That is what prompted the Republicans in the U.S. House to abandon the stance they took last month against extending the 2011 payroll tax cut without corresponding spending cuts. Without the extension, workers would have seen their income dip by 2 percent once February closed out.

The reason for the about-face was pragmatic — the GOP lawmakers wanted to take campaign arrows out of Democrats’ quivers in an election year. Both major parties have, over the years, exhibited a preference of electability over principle in years that end with an election.

The bill that Congress passed Friday also takes two other no-win election-year issues off the table. Unemployment benefits that would have started phasing out in March have been given a reprieve through the end of the year, and a 27 percent drop in Medicare reimbursements for physicians has been scuttled through the legislation.

The cost of all this? Another $100 billion-plus of red ink in a year that promises to be the fourth straight in which the federal budget deficit will surpass $1 trillion.

Some argue that the fragile recovery can’t withstand sudden fiscal responsibility, and there may be some validity to that argument. But the bigger concern — and let’s be honest about this — is political jockeying by Republicans and Democrats alike. Once a tax break like the 2 percent reduction from last year takes place, removal of the reduction is seen — particularly by workers who may not have had a salary increase since the recession hit — as a tax hike, period. And voters who are financially stressed are not going to look kindly on anyone or any party that adds another 2 percent increase onto their stress.

In other words, $100 billion here and $1 trillion there are small prices to pay for the privilege of being in control in Washington.

Meanwhile, the 2 percent workers are retaining is not coming from the federal spending that is too high, but from the Social Security fund that already is too low and regularly pilfered by lawmakers.

We agree that workers deserve to keep more of their paychecks, but we do not think it should be funded in a way that will shortchange those same workers years down the road when they have to rely on Social Security — assuming it’s still there — to help them meet living expenses. And somehow our federal government has to figure out a way to fund itself without borrowing 40 cents of every dollar it spends.

Of course, it could be worse. Every year could be an election year.