So just what was Congress, and especially the U.S. House of Representatives, doing when it entered the final week of its high-speed game of chicken with the White House and three out of four Americans who said loudly and clearly they did not want a government shutdown?
One part of the answer, the political part, is indisputable: In their votes to cut food assistance and link the Affordable Care Act to any 2014 federal budget deal, about 180 members of the 234-member Republican House majority hoped to fireproof their right flanks from the flame-throwing, tea-tossing 40 or so GOP colleagues that have made the House all but ungovernable for their party and its leader, Speaker John Boehner, of Ohio.
In short, they didn’t vote to cut food stamps or defund Obamacare as much as they voted to wall off any right-wing challenge to their jobs, despite a splendid record of doing nearly nothing for two years.
A second part of the answer, the farm and food part, is equally indisputable: For an unprecedented second year in a row, the Chicken Liver Caucus of the House Ag Committee failed to convince colleagues to pass a comprehensive farm bill.
The Liver Gang can slip part of the blame; 41 dead-end House votes to kill Obamacare evidently didn’t leave enough time for one vote on one comprehensive farm bill in two years. That inability, however, delivered the fate of the farm bill to the mighty nine percent, the 40 or so tea party Republicans who forced Boehner’s hand on both recent votes.
These mighty mice knew what to do with the power they unexpectedly received. Impressively, and without blinking an eye, they ran the table on the other 91 percent.
But both votes did little to advance the nation’s 2014 farm bill, the 2014 federal budget and the need to avoid a debt ceiling default by, according to recent guesses, mid-October.
On Sept. 24, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, the always boiling kettle of the tea party, called the House votes a “charge into fixed bayonets,” and sarcastically called its always-talking architect, freshman Sen. Ted Cruz, R-TX, “General Cruz.” (The Journal went on to hope this “Cruz campaign” was more than an effort to compile “fund-raising lists or getting face on cable TV shows,” but it doubted it.)
So, a week before funding for the new federal fiscal year is needed and two years after work on a new federal farm bill began, you, me and the nation have no 2014 budget, no 2012, 2013 or 2014 farm bill and no hope of getting either, until Speaker Boehner somehow satisfies — or isolates — his nine percent rump group.
In the meantime, the House could marry its two, separately-passed elements of a farm bill — the farm program title and the contentious food assistance title — into one bill so it can proceed cleanly to a House-Senate conference.
That is no simple task. If it were as “procedural” as some suggest, the House would have folded the two together in its barely-successful vote Sept. 19 to cut $39 billion in food assistance from the farm bill over the coming decade.
Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor didn’t roll the two into one, however, because they had the exact number of “yeas” — 217 — needed to pass the controversial cuts, and feared the addition of even one comma would have turned their narrow, ugly win into a wide, ugly loss.
With or without the marriage, in two pieces or as whole, House leaders can move the farm bill to the Senate. One sign of movement would be the Speaker naming House members to the Senate-House farm bill conference to hammer out a final, joint bill.
After that — and no one knows when “that” will be, except all include the phrase “weeks from now” when offering any time frame — farm bill negotiations can begin.
But don’t count on it. At least not until the charge into fixed bayonets is over.
© 2013 ag comm