Lessons from the Farm Bill Collapse

by Daniel Foster

The farm bill’s doom in the House was over-determined. First of all, the bill was a pork-filled stinker. NRO’s editors called it “a spree of Big Government corporatism predicated on an increasingly remote interest in improving the American agricultural sector.” Second, conservative Republicans bolted because the food stamp cuts were too shallow, while Democrats bolted because they were too deep. Insiders grumbled that Pelosi had promised 40 votes (while delivering only 24) and that GOP whippers were counting on them when the vote opened. But if you’re relying on the promises of Nancy Pelosi, you’re already in a bad place.

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 any case, the big lesson here: The House is not the Senate, in case anyone was still unclear on that. The Senate passed a much milder bill with big bipartisan majorities. But the Honey Badger that is the House GOP don’t care. The Gang of Eight would do well to keep that in mind on immigration.

The fact is House Republicans remain untamable. This isn’t the first—or fifth—time John Boehner has been dealt a surprise defeat on a floor vote. I don’t think he’s a bad Speaker, per se, but this caucus is unusually independent for a House majority, and the institutional levers that have traditionally afforded leadership great control over the herd have proven insufficient with this group.  Even Boehner’s unusual announcement of support for the bill couldn’t keep a whopping 62 Republicans from bailing. Nor is this just about the “Class of 2010”, either. In fact it goes back to the Republicans’ days in the minority, when Boehner failed to deliver bailout votes he promised Pelosi would be there.

The revolt of conservatives against traditional caucus hierarchy is starting to feel like a semi-permanent development in American politics. Think about it. Roughly since the financial crisis, and certainly since Obama’s election, when Republicans lose members of their caucus, it’s usually to their Right. And when Democrats lose members of their caucus it’s usually to their Right, too.