The Gang That Couldn’t Plow Straight

by John Lawrence

Back on May 29, I published a blog on the upcoming fight on the farm bill, and noted,

  • A substantial responsibility …  falls to the House Speaker, John A. Boehner (R-OH).  … Boehner will have to exercise leadership to bring a House companion bill to the floor, pass it, and go to conference. 

Well, the party of personal responsibility just fell short, again, in the area of legislative responsibility.   Today’s 195-234 defeat of the House bill was not surprising given the inability of the Republican leadership to discipline its forces and avert fatal amendments that (a) would pass the House, (b) alienate crucial Democratic votes, (c) fail to assuage Tea Party members who still hate the cost of the farm subsidies, and (d) stand no chance in any event of getting enacted into law.

What was a bit surprising was Majority Leader Cantor’s silly accusation that the blame fell on Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi for …. what?  Not lining up her troops in support of an anti-nutrition amendment that Democrats had made clear they could not support?   As I recall, Pelosi demonstrated considerable skills six years ago in securing passage of a farm bill that met with considerable resistance from portions of her Caucus who, nevertheless, trusted her leadership and recognized the need to pass enactable legislation.   Although she was able to secure the votes of just 19 Republicans – a veritable tidal wave of support compared to the general Republican refusal to support legislation during her speakership – Pelosi had to pull out all the stops to persuade a recalcitrant Democratic Caucus to pass the bill. 

Once again, it appears, Cantor decided to become the spoiler in a key test for the Republican leadership, and the Speaker in particular.  Unlike Pelosi, Boehner lacks credibility with the ideological core of his party, notwithstanding his career-long opposition to numerous farm bills.  Whereas Pelosi was reliably able to go to her liberal wing and persuade them of the need to legislate even if that meant a less-than-ideal product, Boehner lacks the credibility with his hard-liners to make that case, and Cantor is almost always happy to rev up the die-hard nihilists.

The farm bill may re-sprout and find its way back to the House floor, but today’s humiliation suggests a final product likely faces a potholed path to the Oval Office.  Even more problematical, the farm failure could presage real problems for the immigration bill.  As noted in my earlier blog, Boehner is ambivalent about the need to flex muscle to get tough legislation through.  “I don’t need to be out there beating the drum every day,” he said.  “It doesn’t need the heavy hand of the speaker all over everything.”

Wrong.  Boehner will have to work closely not only with Democrats but with his nay-sayer Conference to fashion a workable immigration bill.  And he is going to have to instruct his Rules Committee to deny the irreconcilable Right the ability to  offer poison pill  amendments designed to drive away the Democratic votes he will need to pass it, since he evidently will have trouble lining up sufficient Republicans. 

Similarly, when the House gets down to what might be its only must-pass bill later this year, the extension of the debt ceiling, the Speaker is again going to have to dissuade his Conference from tossing out ideological and unenactable amendments.   This isn’t 2011: if Republicans provoke a debt ceiling confrontation over demands for massive, offsetting spending cuts, the business community is going to come unglued, and rightly so.  With over $2 trillion in domestic discretionary cuts on the books, the deficit dropping, and little prospect for a deficit Grand Bargain incorporating tax and entitlement reform, Wall Street and Main Street are going to be apoplectic about another manufactured debt ceiling crisis.

Sounds like the Speaker might want to invest in a drum set.