Commentary Magazine


The Logic of the Farm Bill’s Failure

Thanks to the whip count, there is usually an inverse relationship between the scope of a piece of legislation and the drama of the vote itself. The more important, controversial, or far-reaching a bill, the more embarrassing would be its televised defeat. And, especially with regard to unpopular or controversial bills, legislators don’t want to go on record voting for a doomed law.

So there is something almost refreshing about moments of suspense or surprise in Congress, one of which took place yesterday. The New York Times reports: “The surprise defeat of the farm bill in the House on Thursday underscored the ideological divide between the more conservative, antispending Republican lawmakers and their leadership, who failed to garner sufficient votes from their caucus as well as from Democrats.”

This is an incomplete portrait of the vote, since it may be technically true that Republicans failed to garner sufficient votes from Democrats–but so did the Democratic House leadership, specifically Nancy Pelosi. Each parties’ House leadership promised the other more votes than it ultimately supplied. Pelosi and Speaker John Boehner weren’t thrilled about the bill, and their base flanks hated it. The point was to pass something and then make adjustments in committee. It might be accurate to say, then, that what happened was the House voted down a bill it didn’t like.

That’s less colorful than the press coverage depicting raging Tea Partiers staging an insurrection and virtually chasing Boehner from the House floor with pitchforks and torches. If you give every lawmaker a reason to vote against a bill, as happened with the farm bill, they very well may take you up on it. First of all, as Bethany noted yesterday, from a spending standpoint it isn’t so much a farm bill as a food stamp bill. Of the bill’s $939.5 billion in spending, most of it was on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Leading up to the bill, Democrats engaged in a stunt called the “SNAP Challenge,” in which they would try to feed themselves on a SNAP budget. They did not exactly shine on this one, and ended up proving two things: that Democratic members of Congress don’t know what the word “supplemental” means (the program is not intended to be the sum total of anyone’s food budget), and that many can’t be relied upon to budget for themselves, even though they are empowered to budget for the country.

The latter realization made the “SNAP Challenge” not only silly, but also vaguely terrifying. And it helped doom the bill. Democrats, confused by their trip to the supermarket and the purpose of the SNAP program, decided there wasn’t enough money in the bill for it. Conservatives, who did not suffer from the same confusion, thought the mammoth spending bill spent too much. This is a recipe for a failed bill, which was exactly the fate that awaited the legislation.

There were the inevitable hysterical reactions by those who didn’t get their way that democracy is in peril. Politico refers to these folks in its reaction story: “People involved in the farm debate, irate at the sudden defeat, say the House is plainly not working.” But actually, the opposite is true. In a perceptive post on the failure of the bill, which he called “over-determined,” National Review’s Dan Foster writes:

Maybe Boehner and Cantor made a tactical mistake. They could have gone much, much bigger on the food stamp cuts—say, rolling back the program to its pre-recession size—in order to shore up the caucus, Democratic votes be damned. Remember that this vote wasn’t the end game anyway. The point was to pass something and then hammer out a compromise in conference committee, away from glaring media eyes and pesky rank-and-filers. Besides, the president had vowed to veto the House bill anyway, so why not go bigger?

In other words, the GOP House could have followed the Democrats’ playbook and simply passed a more partisan bill along partisan lines. The House can pass legislation on a majority vote without having to face a filibuster or other of the Senate’s procedural brake pedals. What doomed this particular bill was its attempt at bipartisanship and corralling Democratic votes that were promised but not delivered. This is why although the post-bill partisan finger pointing is obnoxious from both sides, Pelosi’s lashing out at the GOP is absurd. They could have passed a more conservative bill without her caucus or her input. Her behavior is now encouraging them to do exactly that.

And so is the pressure on Boehner (and, to a lesser extent, Cantor). Foster makes what I think is a very important point when he writes: “The revolt of conservatives against traditional caucus hierarchy is starting to feel like a semi-permanent development in American politics.” It does not benefit Cantor to have these surprise votes. Someone has to better take the temperature of the House conservatives, and if Cantor doesn’t serve as that link between the base and the leadership then he’s going to find both sides wondering what his role is in all this.

Supporters of the farm bill cannot credibly make the claim that the bill was too partisan to pass. And the leadership of both parties would do well to stop talking about House conservatives as if they are spoiled, petulant children. If they were sent to Congress to do anything amid the rise of Tea Party politics, it was to vote down bloated spending schemes. There is an argument to be made that some Tea Partiers have been too averse to governing. But governing sometimes means voting against bad legislation, and the farm bill had few merits.

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