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.

Capitol Building Dusk

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.

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FILED UNDER: Borders and Immigration, Congress, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. legion says:

    Uh, how is this news? Everyone on the planet has known this for years. Literally the only thin Boehner can get his caucus reliably behind is utterly meaningless votes to repeal Obamacare.

  2. michael reynolds says:

    I love the fact that some people continue to push the notion that Democrats haven’t done enough to reach out to the mental patients Republicans. The Republicans can’t even reach out to Republicans.

  3. Jenos Idanian says:

    Recheck your math, Doug.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.

    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.

    Shift 20 votes, and it becomes 215-214. Simple majority, bill passes.

    That aside, it’s a reminder to the leadership that they don’t own their party members. Those members are not beholden to the leadership, but the voters of their home district. The leadership has to remember that it can’t command loyalty (well, the Democrats often do, but we’re not talking about Democrats here), but has to find common ground with a significant majority of their members.

    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.

    Since you’ve already admitted that the bill in question was — as usual — a huge crap sandwich, then I really don’t mind setting that aside. God forfend we should ever expect or hope for our elected representatives to actually stand on principle.

    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.

    Then the GOP leadership overreached and overpromised. They should have held out for a deal that enough of their members could live with.

    Perhaps the GOP leadership should focus more on “representing the majority of the GOP” and less on “catering to the whims of the Democrats.”

  4. al-Ameda says:

    Well, the (GOP) bozos included significant cuts in the food stamp program into the bill, figuring (wrongly) that Democrats would not vote against the Farm Bill.

    By the way, does anyone know if House Republicans have scheduled their 38th vote to repeal the Affordable Healthcare Act yet?

  5. rudderpedals says:

    60 defectors would be a decent start for the inevitable breakaway third party. The Whigs didn’t last forever…

  6. @Jenos Idanian:

    Those members are not beholden to the leadership, but the voters of their home district.

    So the voters of their home district want this result?

    Bah….

  7. Jenos Idanian says:

    @James Pearce (Formerly Known as Herb): My rep’s a Democrat, so I know how they voted.

    And it’s up to the voters in the home district to express themselves.

  8. Jenos Idanian says:

    @Angelika: Spambot alert.

  9. @Jenos Idanian:

    And it’s up to the voters in the home district to express themselves.

    If any voters asked for these clowns to torpedo a farm bill over food stamps, I would be very surprised. If they did it without prompting from their local right wing radio stooge, I would shave my head and join the Hare Krishnas.

  10. Gromitt Gunn says:

    People like to rag on Texas, but we actually had a good demonstration during this past session of how a Democratic minority and the serious governance portion of a Republican majority can team up to marginalize the Tea Party types.

  11. legion says:

    @Jenos Idanian:

    And it’s up to the voters in the home district to express themselves.

    They most likely did, Jenos. That’s why it failed. Face it – you’re in the minority _and_ the country is better off for it.

  12. steve says:

    Boner’s something of a victim here. Compared to the Ted Cruzes of the world, he’s a moderate, sensible dealmaker. Due to Fox/Ailes/Koch/PACs etc the speaker has no influence over his members. If he just starts using a few dozen ‘moderate’ repubs and most of the dems to pass bills, The Tealiban members will remove him as speaker. A Tealiban speaker of the house would be even worse.

  13. Franklin says:

    @Jenos Idanian:

    Shift 20 votes, and it becomes 215-214. Simple majority, bill passes.

    I gave you a thumb’s up because you can actually do simple math.

  14. Moosebreath says:

    ” which is the political equivalent of cheering with Phillies fans at a Nationals game”

    And what is wrong with that (says this Phillies Phan)? Just as there are two possible votes on any bill, there are two teams playing in a baseball game. And neither of them was ordained to win all of the time.

  15. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Jenos Idanian: Your comment seems to imply that if voters are not voting outcomes of which you approve, they are failing in their duties as voters. Care to comment?

  16. Tlaloc says:

    Shift 20 votes, and it becomes 215-214. Simple majority, bill passes.

    your math is right but your concluson is wrong because the dems delivered 24 votes, not 20:
    http://www.politico.com/story/2013/06/farm-bill-vote-house-93119.html

    so delivering a total of 40 would be a swing of 32 (16 nays to ayes) not 40. Hence the final total would be 218 against and 211 for with the bill still failing.

  17. Jenos Idanian says:

    @Tlaloc: /shrug. I took Doug’s numbers and ran with them. I didn’t think that I’d have to fact-check his basic numbers.

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker: Your comment seems to imply that if voters are not voting outcomes of which you approve, they are failing in their duties as voters. Care to comment?

    Yes, I do care to comment. Your conclusion is incorrect. I intended no such implication.

  18. Matt Bernius says:

    @Jenos Idanian:

    @Angelika: Spambot alert.

    Noted. In recent days a lot of spam has been getting through the site’s (or rather WordPress’s) spam guard. We’re working to prune it as it gets through.

  19. Caj says:

    John Boehner is no leader. He’s a weak fool who is scared witless of those idiotic tea party members! Have to laugh when he accuses Prez Obama of not being a leader. The Prez can run rings round that fool where leadership is concerned! The Congress is a joke and John Boehner is the biggest joker in the pack.

  20. superdestroyer says:

    The problem is that Boehner has zero leadership ability. Speaker Boehner has the same problem that former Speaker Hastert has, he is a northern political hack who is mainly interested in bring pork back to his district. Speaker Boehner is totally unfit to be speaker and should not really be in Congress. If one wants people to vote against their interest some times, you have to give them massive victories at other times. Since Speaker Boeher has done nothing for conservative or Republicans, he has no ability to lead them into deals that benefit Democrats and harm Republicans.

  21. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @Matt Bernius: Feel free to delete my reference to it, too.

    And I’ve also noticed the uptick in infestations. My sympathies, and my thanks for dealing with it as quickly as you do.

  22. Latino_in_Boston says:

    You know, I keep wondering why Boehner wants the speakership at all. It’s certainly not getting him any respect, it’s not really getting him much power since he’s in constant danger of losing his caucus, it’s most definitely not going to get him any favorable treatment in history books, and it’s like he’s able to pass much of anything. Instead, he just becomes fodder for late night comics, and gets constantly reminded how much of a RINO he is. Who wants that much grief?

  23. Jenos Idanian says:

    @Latino_in_Boston: Can’t argue with a thing you say about Boehner, but I gotta say this: STILL better than Pelosi.

    I once knew a guy who sought out a position of authority. I asked him why, and he gave me two reasons: he knew he could do the work, and it kept the power out of the hands of the a-holes.

    I saw a couple others in his position. He was right on both counts. Didn’t do a great job, but did an adequate one. And he was actually more proud of “adequate” than he would’ve been with a long list of accomplishments.

    Kind of like Calvin Coolidge, in a way…

  24. Kari Q says:

    At least Pelosi is capable of counting the votes in her caucus. She told Boehner how many Democratic votes he would get both with and without the amendment, and she was right. Maybe Boehner should ask her how a real Speaker does the job.