The failure of the farm bill — and why House Republicans can’t be led

June 20, 2013

The House Republican conference simply cannot be led.

That reality hit home -- hard -- this afternoon when the House failed to pass a farm bill. The bill failed 234-195 with 62 Republicans voting against it and just 24 Democrats voting for it.


The farm bill failed by a vote of 234-195 on Thursday.

Republican insiders immediately tried to foist the blame on Democrats, insisting that 40 "yea" votes had been promised and the vote count was dependent on those votes being delivered. (Worth noting: The administration made clear in a statement Monday that President Obama would veto the bill if it passed, a declaration that undoubtedly had a chilling effect on Democratic votes in favor of the legislation.)

But here's the simple political reality: The majority party in the House should never -- repeat NEVER -- lose floor votes on major (or, really, minor) pieces of legislation. Republicans, literally, write the rules governing the debate -- and, as the majority, must ensure that even in the worst-case scenario they can get the "yeas" they need from their own side. That didn't happen as a number of conservatives revolted, believing that the cuts proposed in the bill were insufficient. (Democrats who voted against the bill largely did so out of a concern that the legislation cut in the wrong places. Wonkblog has a good rundown of what was in the bill.)

"Republicans continue to act as an opposition party and not as a governing party, which is congruent with increasing parliamentary behavior among the electorate and their elected officials," said one former Republican lawmaker. "This is not a path to a majority. House Republicans need to recognize their destinies are intertwined."

It's not the first time that the GOP leadership team of House Speaker John Boehner (Ohio.), House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) have failed to wrangle conservatives allied with the tea party into line.

Earlier this week the House voted to ban abortions after 20 weeks, a measure pushed by conservatives but one that many in the party viewed as an unnecessary distraction given that the legislation had no chance of even being taken up by the Democratic-controlled Senate.

And, late last year, conservatives revolted against Boehner's "Plan B" proposal on the tax rate showdown with the White House -- forcing the Speaker to pull the legislation before he even offered it.

It's easy in the wake of this trifecta of votes to make the case that Boehner, Cantor and McCarthy are simply ineffective leaders. (House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who knows something about rounding up votes, described Thursday's vote as "major amateur hour".)

But laying the blame at the feet of Boehner etc. overlooks a more basic point: The Republican House conference, as currently comprised, cannot be led.

The main reason for that fact is the rump group of tea party-aligned conservatives who do not take orders from their party leadership. A look at the Republican votes against the legislation reads like a "who's who" of tea party icons: Justin Amash (Mich.), Michele Bachmann (Minn.), Paul Broun (Ga.), Steve Stockman (Texas) and so on and so forth.

If you think that anyone  -- and that includes much-discussed Speaker-in-Waiting Paul Ryan (Wisc.) -- can tell that group of legislators what to do, you don't understand the political calculus they use to make decisions. They are far more loyal to the tea party movement than to the House Republican establishment. Jim DeMint or Ted Cruz would have a far better chance of convincing them how to vote than Boehner, Cantor or McCarthy do.

It's also worth remembering that the way votes were whipped in the old days was by inserting various earmarks that benefited the districts of wavering members. When House Republicans re-took control of the House in the 2010 midterms, they instituted a ban on earmarks -- effectively robbing the leadership of just the sort of plums that had always been used to sweeten the pot for lawmakers who needed a little something extra to get to "yes".

That's not to say that the GOP leadership team is blameless, however. Five House Committee chairmen  -- Ryan (Budget), Jeb Hensarling (Financial Services), Ed Royce (Foreign Affairs), Bob Goodlatte (Judiciary) and Jeff Miller (Veterans Affairs) -- voted against the farm bill. While each of them undoubtedly had their own reasons for their "no" votes, chairmen are supposed to support the leadership on key bills. It's why they are chairmen.

The big takeaway from the failure of the farm bill is that House Republicans simply cannot be led by anyone at the moment. That means you should be wary of predictions about the fate of the immigration bill in the House, among others pieces of pending legislation. "If they can't manage the farm bill, what's going to happen on immigration?," asked Democratic Congressional Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.).

No one knows the answer to that question -- up to and including House Republicans.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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