A long, bitter year in the long, bitter Congressional session drifted into the campaign season with the U.S. House of Representatives unable or unwilling to butter the softest piece of legislative toast before them, the 2012 Farm Bill.
Speaker of the House John Boehner attempted to telegraph that likely outcome two months ago as Congress ran out of town for its August recess.
That he couldn’t organize his caucus for a farm bill vote at the height of a devastating drought was a surprise. A far bigger surprise was Boehner’s failure to organize his members for a farm bill vote after the recess’s five weeks of jabbering and jawboning.
Are we to believe that the Speaker of the House is so powerless in his own caucus that he cannot pat enough knees or twist enough arms to pass a pretty bipartisan, mostly non-controversial farm bill that would likely benefit every GOP candidate in every reliably red state in rural America this November?
Not likely, the Speaker could have steamrollered a vote. In fact, if the conservative wing of his caucus wanted more cuts to food assistance programs — a claim they made in denouncing the House Ag Committee’s 10-year cut of $16.5 billion from food stamps in the bill’s $969 billion of overall spending — Boehner could have delivered that chance through the amendment process during floor action. But he didn’t; why?
Figuring it out
One explanation is that any move to alter the Ag Committee’s bill on the House floor faced a coalescing wall of urban Democrats and rural, tea-tinged Republicans who either thought the food aid cuts were too deep (the Dems) or too shallow (the Repubs).
As such, the Speaker couldn’t find the necessary Republican noses to move forward for a vote. The Dems certainly weren’t going to save his political bacon and GOP conservatives clearly wanted more of what they called farm bill fat in the frying pan.
Separately, but together, they stymied the speaker. Another, more likely explanation is that Boehner couldn’t risk a vote on food assistance funding because his political opposition, led by the Ag Committee’s former chairman, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, probably would have won either vote.
The Minnesota Democrat, with but a handful of Republicans, probably could have held the line on the bill’s food aid budget and, probably, would have played a similar role to defeat any amendment demanding deeper cuts.
Probably is the operative word for two reasons. First, neither vote was held so we simply don’t know either outcome and, second, neither was held because — probably — the Speaker knew the outcome: Defeat.
Boehner, after all, is product of the House and you don’t ascend to the thin air of Congressional leadership without a Ph.D. in vote counting. Neither outcome, both harmful to the Speaker’s standing, was something the nation’s highest-ranking Republican wanted six weeks before an election to determine the political make-up of Congress and the White House.
Still, the move to do nothing is a gamble several of his GOP colleagues in tight election races around the country must now address. For example, North Dakota’s freshman Republican House member, Rick Berg, has seen his Senate race against Democrat Heidi Heitkamp, the state’s former attorney general, tighten since Boehner failed to move the Farm Bill through his GOP-dominated House.
Berg calls the Speaker’s handling of the whole process “poor.” Worse for farmers, ranchers and rural communities is Boehner’s recent promise to “deal with the Farm Bill after the election.”
Asked what that meant — an extension of the current law or a vote on the Ag Committee’s rewrite — the Speaker would only say he probably doesn’t have the votes to pass either now.
So what’s a vote in an after-election, lame duck session — with the same members carrying even more political baggage and facing even tighter deadlines on even bigger issues — gonna’ do? It’s a gamble that carries nothing but trouble for the Speaker, his colleagues and you.