Farm Bill Failure Shows House GOP Leadership Doesn’t Really Control The House GOP Caucus
It looks for all the world as if the House GOP Caucus isn't really under the control of the leadership.
Late yesterday, the House GOP Leadership suffered a rather embarrassing defeat when the Republican version of the Farm Bill, which everyone had expected to pass, ended up failing by a 195-234 vote. Rather stunningly, large numbers of Republicans voting against the bill that their own party had sponsored while a majority of Democrats voted against the bill largely because of an amendment regarding the Food Stamp program that had been slipped into the bill at the 11th hour. Almost immediately, the finger pointing erupted on the floor of the House:
[S]enior House Republican aides were blaming the defeat Thursday more on what they say was a failure – or even a double-cross – by House Democrats on promises to deliver at least 40 more votes than the 24 Democrats who supported the bill.
A McCarthy aide, Erica Elliott, even e-mailed to reporters an Associated Press story dating from Wednesday in which Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., the ranking member of the Agriculture Committee, had predicted “at least” 40 Democrats would support the bill.
In a statement, Cantor more directly blamed Democrats for Thursday’s vote outcome.
“I’m extremely disappointed that Nancy Pelosi and Democratic leadership have at the last minute chosen to derail years of bipartisan work on the Farm Bill and related reforms,” said Cantor.
But Collins, speaking to reporters after the bill’s defeat, suggested that the fault lies more in the GOP leadership’s decision to allow passage of the late amendment from Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla., which would give states an option to require people receiving food stamps to find work.
That cost dozens of Democratic votes for the wider bill, Peterson said. Even before that amendment was passed, most Democrats opposed that bill on the grounds it cut $20.5 billion from the food-stamp program.
“When I was chairman, I had to come up with the votes,” Peterson added, deflecting claims that Democrats were at fault for the outcome.
Republicans also said that House Democratic Leadership had promised that they could get 40 Democratic votes for the final bill and in the end only delivered 20. However, even if that’s true, simple math tells us that those additional 20 votes would not have been sufficient to get the bill the majority of votes that it needed to pass thanks to the fact that some 50 Republicans voted against the bill. Unless those additional 20 Democratic votes were accompanied by an additional 10-15 Republican votes, the bill still would have fallen short. The question is exactly how this was allowed to happen, and what it means for the ability of other, more controversial, legislation to make it through the House as well as calling into question the ability of Speaker John Boehner and the rest of the House Leadership to control the caucus that they are leading.
As a preliminary matter, let’s push to the side any questions regarding the content of the Farm Bill itself. In reality, Republicans who voted against it had plenty of grounds to do so. Like pretty much every Farm Bill dating back to the 1930s, this bill does nothing to address the absurd system of farm subsidies that ends up paying farmers to not grow crops. Add to this the fact that the bill, like its predecessors, contained a virtual wish list of goodies for the big corporate farmers that hire the lobbyists who walk the halls of the Congress. On the Democratic side, it does appear that House Democrats have a legitimate beef regarding the Food Stamp Amendment both on substance and because it appeared to violate the terms of the deal that the leadership of the two sides had worked out on the bill before it was brought to the floor. What’s important about the Farm Bill vote, though, isn’t the substance of the bill but what it shows us about the current culture in the House GOP Caucus.
The majority in the House has immense power over how and when pieces of legislation can be brought to the floor. Thanks to their party’s majority on the Rules Committee, they can set not just the terms of the debate on the floor, but also how long that debate will last, how many people on each side will be able to speak, and what if any amendments the opposition will be able to introduce for debate and vote prior to the vote on the final passage of the bill. The rules that govern the House also give leadership the power to pull the bill at almost any time prior to the actual start of voting and to keep voting on the floor open as long as they might deem it necessary to cajole recalcitrant members of the party caucus to vote the way the leadership would like. Because of this, when a bill supported by the majority party come to the floor it’s generally assumed that they are going to pass or that, if it looks like it won’t, that the leadership will pull the bill from the floor in order to give them more time to like up the 218 votes generally needed to pass legislation in the House. For that raason it’s generally quite rare for a bill supported by the majority party to fail like the Farm Bill did.
This morning on Morning Joe, former Congressman Joe Scarborough lambasted Speaker Boehner and the rest of the House GOP leadership for bringing the Farm Bill to the floor without being sure they had enough votes within their own caucus to pass the bill. For the most part, he was correct in this judgment. Whatever deal that the House GOP leaders may have had with Democratic leaders should have been secondary in their calculation of the votes needed to pass the bill. Given that they fell 40 votes short of a majority on the Republican side seems to indicate either really bad bill management, some duplicity on the part of members who said they’d support the bill before the vote but then changed their minds, or its a sign that the leadership has no control over their own caucus, something you almost never saw in other recent Speakers ranging from Tip O’Neill all the way up to Nancy Pelosi. Yes, there were occasions where the majority party would lose a vote on the floor but they typically came on controversial bills of some sort or another, not on something that’s deemed as commonplace as a Farm Bill, which typically passes the House with wide majorities.
Now, in the wake of yesterday’s debacle, many are wondering what the Farm Bill might portend for the future of other pieces of legislation, such as immigration reform:
The theory in the Senate is simple: If a bill can pass in that chamber with 70 or more votes, Democrats reason, then the House will be forced to take it up and pass their version of bills.
But that notion ignores the repeated evidence that many House Republicans are far more interested in using their floor as a place to send messages and uphold political principles. Their theory is that blocking things is less about doing nothing than about preventing something they dislike.
The farm bill is just the latest and most straightforward example of the House dynamic. The House measure called for far more significant cuts to food stamps than the Senate bill did and would have likely passed with even some Democrats and created a path toward a Senate compromise in a conference committee.
For many House Republicans, those cuts still did not go far enough. What’s more, they piled on, adding amendments to allow states to drug-test food stamp applicants, and to require food stamp recipients to meet federal welfare work requirements. The result was more Democrats bailing from the bill, and too many Republicans still unmollified.
This pattern has repeated along a broad array of fiscal and social policy measures for nearly three years. For measures to extend student loan rates or payroll tax cuts, aid states hit by natural disasters, finance the United Nations and keep the government running, House Republican prescriptive social policy amendments have been their undoing, alienating Democrats, yet often not going far enough for their most-conservative blocs.
When it comes to immigration, that battle is almost certain to play out over the concept of whether or not immigrants here illegally can be given a road to citizenship.
All this leaves Speaker John A. Boehner with essentially two choices: pass bills with House Democrats, which is the political equivalent of cheering with Phillies fans at a Nationals game, or let his conference pass bills that are so far to the right of anything that the Senate passes that compromise via conference committee becomes elusive.
As I noted earlier this week, Republicans face a complicated political calculation when it comes to immigration regardless of what form any bill that gets voted on in the House might take. On the national level, it’s clear that it is in the party’s interest to get some kind of bill passed. On the level of the individual district, though, which is the level at which most Members of Congress operate, the incentives to block immigration reform in almost any form in order to avoid a primary challenge is quite strong. This makes it hard for the party leadership to push members in the direction it would like, especially since many Members of Congress get more campaign support from activists and outside groups than they do from the party. As noted, that leaves Boehner and the rest of the leadership with a real dilemma. Do they bring something resembling the Senate immigration bill to the floor and rely on Democratic votes to get it to the needed majority, this violating the so-called “Hastert Rule,” or do they pass a bill that is so far to the right that it has no chance of passing in the Senate? In either case, the action would seem to be a clear indication that the leadership, and that means not just Boehner but also Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, really doesn’t have control over the caucus the way leadership teams have in the past. That doesn’t bode well for the chances of anything resembling the Senate bill making it through the House alive.